belief intersects Wisconsin poetry
By Wendy Vardaman
One of the visible movements of the modern imagination is the movement away from God. —Wallace Stevens
…one of the invisible movements of the modern imagination may therefore be toward that same God.—Paul Mariani
to seem the stranger
To write about God without presupposing “his” absurdity or unreality and to do it with fresh and surprising language, imagery, poetic craft, and power is a tall order. Gerard Manley Hopkins did it, and so did John Berryman in “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” In a lot of ways, however, writing a good religious poem makes writing a good political poem look like a cake walk. It’s not easy to be both sincere and scintillating about something that most of us, even when we practice a religion, feel uneasy discussing. Rather than announce our beliefs on signs, we tend to tuck them in our pockets or between quotation marks: “god,” not God; “religion”; “prayer.” Or we speak of them with irony. It’s a little more ok, perhaps, to be upfront about spirituality, which does not necessarily imply belief in a creator. I’m intrigued and baffled by the fact that after reading dozens of books and probably twenty poets carefully to write this essay, I don’t for the most part know what any of them actually believes, though I could tell you a fair amount about their personal lives. And believe me, I understand that attitude. It’s a mask we wear to avoid ridicule on the one hand, and because many of us don’t really know what we believe, or how much we believe it, on the other. We are, after all, poets, not philosophers or theologians—why should anyone know or care what we believe in our real lives anyway?
To judge by a group of recent books of Wisconsin poetry, although God has experienced something of a poetic comeback, he tends to manifest himself as a human, flawed, and usually male construct, more or less ironic and often comic. Rather than any transcendent reality, God figures in contemporary poems as a philosophical problem, as a rhetorical or narrative device, as a historical construct or mis-construct, with all of the problems that implies. We poets don’t tend to talk about God as a real presence—it would be hard to do that and to maintain the intellectual wit or detachment that we favor. Think of the risks: sincerity, sentiment, commitment. Shudder.
It’s mildly ironic that no Wisconsin poet has written more compellingly, sustainedly, and sincerely about god, religion, and belief, than the philosopher John Koethe, a stalwart materialist who takes up the modernist search for meaning in a broken world, methodically exploring the roads it mapped and declaring each a dead end. Both Ninety-fifth Street (2009) and Sally’s Hair (2006) have much to say about belief’s allure, which the poet tries to think his way out of, to shrug off. Here for example, in “Persistent Feelings,” Koethe comments on our tendency to find religious significance or epiphany in the feeling of joy, alluding in the process to Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:
Is full of memories and silent passions,
Though there’s nothing in particular to see:
No children in the leaves, no faces hidden in the trees
Or signs to show the presence or the absence of the gods.
Feelings should be personal, though they needn’t be:
Besides the mild disappointments and the ordinary pleasures
Each day brings, the hurt time heals, there’s the wonder
That this life exists at all, that something as familiar as the sky
Could persist in my absence, that the present is the limit of the life
In which I find myself and feel, deep inside a space
Filled with my own breath, the exhilaration and unspoken
Sadness of a world—my world, the only world—
Held together by memory, that ends at death. (NFS 22)
Koethe writes with characteristic directness about these ideas, as if he were musing or soliloquizing to himself. I often have the illusion that I’ve arrived in the middle of an interior, Shakespearean monologue in his poems, the subject of belief a topic to which, like Hamlet, he frequently returns: “I like to think there’s something vaster than myself/Hidden in the past, to be rekindled by a word—although I know/It’s merely hidden in my brain”(“Belmont park,” in NFS 12). For Koethe, belief is a mostly pleasant fiction, as is also the case in “Creation Myths”: “It’s lovely to believe—lovely, anyway to hear./The chaos is still there, but rather than a distant state/From which the patterns of this life emerged,/It feels like part of it”(NFS 37). Or in “21.1,” a marvelous fable about belief and delusion, Koethe tells the story of a race in which he appeared for a moment to have set a national track record, though the mistake is quickly rectified: “I’m human though: sometimes I like to//Fantasize that it had all been true, or had been taken to be true—”(SH 67).
We tend, Koethe argues in his philosopher’s way, to be drawn to belief that will make our lives more significant, “A certain life begins and ends with God,/Not as a tangible reality,/But in the abstract, as a nagging sense//Of something lacking, or of something else/Remaining to be said beyond the facts” (“The Unlasting,” in SH 28). And quoting Wittgenstein, he argues that this struggle is both doomed and human, not something to ridicule, but rather to ponder, to examine. In “Piranesi’s Keyhole” (which refers to the architectural framing of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City), Koethe addresses the question of belief in general, the significance of his own belief, and the existence of the “I,” never mind anything beyond it: “Who/cares What I believe or don’t believe? This voice that speaks to you/Isn’t the voice of a person, but the subject of a reverie”(SH 24).
The subject in Koethe’s poetry works hard not to believe and to sustain unbelief, striving for it, with respect to God as well as to itself, the “I,” as Kierkegaard strives toward faith: “To see things as they are is hard,/But leaving them alone is harder:/Snow in patches in the yard,/The vacuum in the sky, and in the soul/The movements of temptation and refusal./…Hope was for a thing I knew to be unreal./I can’t do it yet. perhaps no one can do it yet” (SH 11).
Like Koethe, Ronald Wallace has never shied from large questions and themes in his poetry, and like Koethe he approaches God philosophically though not as a philosoper, often raising those questions about his existence that one finds in the philosophy classroom, e.g., the problem of evil, the meaning of suffering, the question of belief. His most recent book, For a Limited Time Only (2008), contains many of the same themes and questions in previous work, as well as some of the same humor Wallace is known for, but Wallace himself seems a little less cynical about the questions, a little more willing to risk belief, though there’s still much comic irony laced throughout the poems. In “Limited Time Offer,” for instance, God is first posited as someone who probably knew “what he was doing/ when He set up his earthly economy,” but devolves into a petty tradesman by the end: “It seems life is finally a closeout,/a clearance, a liquidation,/with God up there hawking His wares./The bottom line: Everything Must Go!”(21). “Pascal’s Wager,” somewhat less ironic, lays out Pascal’s philosophical position that humans have more to gain by belief in God than by disbelief, regardless of the truth, as well as a critique of it; the poet-narrator argues in the end that “If the choice comes down to one/between cold logic and Pascal, I’ll take Pascal./Believe me. It’s a wager I would bet on.”
In contrast to Koethe, Wallace often writes about fictional characters. The series, “The Autobiography of Mr. Grim,” takes up the topics of God and the afterlife through the persona of Mr. Grim, whose basement-like picture of paradise is humorously limited by Mr. Grim’s imagination and taste: “with its old familiar futon,/its immaculate thick carpet, its undersized TV tuned to/classic science fiction, the/black-and-white simplicities of/childhood. He won’t have lost it,/after all, this sacred place of/memory and nostalgia”(49). Like Koethe, Wallace connects belief to nostalgia; the poem also humorously addresses the problem of our limited imaginations, of words themselves: we simply don’t have any words/images that aren’t what we already have, and therefore, our vision of what an “afterlife” would look or be like is as comically limited as we are: ridiculous, foolish, but endearingly so.
The final poem in the collection, “All Manner of Wonders,” while not about God or religion, per se, could be read as a conversion narrative: how a crabby clown is won over by the sincere and persistent belief of a more positive clown. Wallace never speaks of God or belief here—if it comes, it is by the reader’s imposition of that story, that meaning, on the poem, as with any parable. And because I want my meaning, my significance, I do impose it. I do equate the ringmaster with God and “all manner of wonders” with the miraculous, though Wallace is also careful not to leave us mesmerized in that tent, but returns the reader at the poem’s end to “the bearable heat of the day,/into the dust and the sunstruck air”(91). And I’m not sure that we’ve arrived anywhere, in terms of God or the philosophical problem of suffering that Wallace phrases with economical lyricism in “What It’s Like”: “When you find yourself in it/do you buy the idea/that pain has its seasons,/tells its cautionary tales,/nails up its warning signs,/makes its own atonal music,/or does it seem that the notion/that pain has its uses is more like the chief/among God’s great excuses?”(34)
call off thoughts awhile elsewhere; leave comfort root-room
perhaps we are hungrier for meaning and sincerity than we think, at least than we let on. But would we write about the experience of being in union with God if we felt it? And how would we write about it? What language would we use? Do we approach the sacred head-on, or sideways? Do we even recognize the sacred when it crosses our path?
Discussing Flannery O’Connor’s sacred language, the poet and critic Paul Mariani compares her use of the “Christ-haunted denizens of Georgia to open simultaneously a door onto the real and the sacred” to:
a literary strategy used by Christ himself, who gave us a world of parables as a way into the world of the spirit. The workaday world and the Spirit, each necessary, each informing and gracing the other. Mustard seeds, birds’ nests, swept rooms, buried treasure, lit lamps, lilies, lost pennies. What similes, what metaphors, what words, after all, does one use to find the Kingdom of Heaven if not the things of this world? (Paul Mariani, God and the Imagination, On Poets, Poetry, and the Inefable, Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2002, 244.)
Language, parable, and poetry, public and private, can continue opening these doors. In an Advent homily that I heard a few years ago, the priest suggested that we all pray for a message from God, such as Mary, as Joseph, received. But, he cautioned, If we received such a message, would we know it? Would we understand how to respond? I went home and dreamed that night that God told me she—or it—was a mathematical equation, which, as I suggest in a poem I wrote about the experience, really raises more questions than it resolves. This is not, of course a new idea. Pythagoras believed in the sacrality of number and in the numerical nature of the divine; number is also central to Kabbalistic understandings of the divine. But an equation? The image suggested a new path, a new way for me to imagine and to write about God. And if God can be imagined to have that relation with mathematics, she can be imagined to have that relation with rhetoric: maybe she is anaphora, or antithesis, or chiasmus, or some rhetorical device no one has ever thought of…
God might best be understood as a rhetorical and a narrative device, in the poetry of Karl Elder and Jesse Lee Kercheval, two poets who are also fiction writers, and concerned with story and character. Elder approaches God from a perspective both philosophical and academic—think comparative religion, as well as highly rhetorical and humorous. Much of the comedy in Gilgamesh at the Bellagio (2007) comes out of the ironic use of rhetoric, and God figures from beginning to end, as the book self-referentially opens with “Original Sin” and ends on “The Disappearing Act.” A recurrent feature of Elder’s work is his appropriation of a multitude of voices and characters that both dazzle the reader and distance us from any particular narrator. His poetry enacts Koethe’s claim that the voice that speaks to you isn’t the voice of a particular person/ poet. God figures in the abecedarium “Original Sin,” and he is amusing, if not amused, speaking to Adam: “‘Good grief, man, as though that knot in your/throat were not enough, you’re clueless too. Your/ewe is lost, your luck is fucked”(13), leaving Adam to speculate that he’d have fared better with Zeus, who “might have made him president.” In poem after poem, Elder considers religious myth, heaven, hell, belief, Lucifer (imagined as a professor), and the many and varied faces of God, with his tongue in one cheek and the other turned: “Folks here’d sooner/quarantine creator than creation./Religion? Heaven knows—if it ain’t gots/swing, then I ain’t gots a godblessed thing/to sing, so you knows I gots religion./Understand this ain’t just ink you read but/veracity come to dwell for all the while in the sad city Felicity”(36).
While the personae of Elder’s poems, even his narrator, may have “religion,” there is no unified narrator and the ideas enunciated by one voice or poem are likely to be contradicted by another voice in a different poem, as in “A Disappearing Act,” a meditation on the end, that incorporates numerous voices and asks, “should time come for res-/cue—fire or ice—would I kowtow? …I don’t think so./Kaput means kibosh, ash for balderdash,/je ne sais pas…”(76).
It’s impossible, irrelevant really, to know what the poet believes in these layered poems that approach religious questions through characters, like the Gilgamesh of the title poem, 2/3 god and 1/3 human, or Houdini in Elder’s recent chapbook, The Houdini Monologues (2010), which takes as its poetic apparatus the haunting fiction that Houdini is trying to escape from a heaven so other, so untenable from the human perspective, that it makes all the magician’s previous traps and predicaments look easy, look pleasant, as in “[Earthscape]”: “What, for sake of inspiration, for respite/in midst of the solitude of the absolute,/does the soul do?”(23). The humor in The Houdini Monologues is more understated, however, more mixed with pathos than in Gilgamesh. In “[Metaphysical Laryngitis],” Houdini attempts to talk to John Cage: “There was great clucking of tongues and words/that rose to the surface to burst into nothing/like talking to yourself under water”(28). The God of The Houdini Monologues is, essentially, a blank, an absence. There’s “afterlife,” but God doesn’t really figure there, though Houdini crosses paths with Cage, with an angel or two, and with a see-through waitress in the significantly-titled “[Pie in the Sky]” who pretends to take his order, but never delivers anything that satisfies. (In that, he suggests, she may be as much like a poet as she is like God.)
“God” likewise figures throughout Jesse Lee Kercheval’s latest collection, Cinema Muto (2009), a book that picks up in a sense the search for God and meaning enunciated in her previous poetry collection, Dog Angel (2004). Kercheval likes to pull disparate elements together in her poetry in a collage-like fashion: religiosity, history, autobiography, fate, family, the unexpected, the search for God in unlikely places. In Cinema Muto, Kercheval approaches God through the central metaphors of the silent movie, reminiscent of the silence in Elder’s Houdini, and the silent movie through the metaphor of God: “But for now,/we know no more than Griffith lets us—will the dog take the message/to his master? Will/the racing car/reach the burning shed/in time? This must/be how God/views the living—/knowing how each/life ends/but still caught up/in the story”(6).
Cinema Muto articulates over and over our wait for God—“the place we wait, eyes wide shut//as silent,//God approaches,” our “hope for God,” and our desire for God, captured in one film by the image of an astronomer floating into the sky in a bubble: “Should we take this as a sign/of man’s desire/to draw nearer/to the heavens,/of his desire/to come closer, God,/to you?”(19) God is perhaps best understood as a narrative device—a way to make sense of the story—in Kercheval’s poetry, one that we can’t do away with, anymore than we can do away with story itself: “when we are born/we are not anyone//we are everyone/the way an actor has to be/this is the way/god exists—” (41).
In contrast to Wallace and Elder, who generally portray God as a comically flawed human, Kercheval asks us to imagine God not as human, but as object. Here I believe is one of the interesting things rhetoric and poetry can do to infuse new breath into our ideas, language, conversation about God:
Imagine God as a camera
at the rich
end of the silent
film era. (71)
God as camera goes where it does, in the manner of cameras: “God is as light/as a mouse,” “God swims in the mad sea/as Napoleon flees Corsica.” Kercheval’s argument is a complex one that asks us to reimagine God imagining the human: “So though fine optics/separate Him/from the beings/He created,/He can almost taste/the ice and blood//in the boy Napoleon’s mouth…know the sharp/cramp in the heart/Marat feels/as he slips/to God’s/side of the lens”(72-3).
hear our hearts grate on themselves
Last year, while my father was dying, my first book of poems came out. He asked me to read a few, requesting one called, “Collecting the Angels,” and wanted an explanation. I mumbled something about my mother’s collection of crystal statues. Then he asked for “Heaven and Hell,” which includes a qualified statement about belief. What did I mean by that? Didn’t I believe in a next world? With no desire to admit to a dying man that I struggled with the concept, I said I preferred not to force my beliefs on others—it wasn’t an appropriate use of poetry. Dissatisfied he demanded, Don’t you have anything good to say about God?—this from someone who schooled me in existentialism and nihilism before I turned 7. So I read him a poem I wrote about G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan, whose theological argument amounts to the idea that it’s hard to believe in God, but easier to believe in saints, especially the belief of saints. That poem is probably the closest I come to a personal expression of belief or of prayer in the book.
A lot of poets seem to equate poetry and prayer. I don’t. While it’s true that prayer can be, at times, poetic, it doesn’t have to be. And poems can wear any number of rhetorical masks, from advertisement to pornographic solicitation to office memo to grocery list to Last Will to prayer. But they are not prayers, any more than they are any of those other things, though they may adopt, at the poet’s discretion, their features, and like the chameleon, assume the appearance of their discursive environment, their temporary location. Maybe some poets, like some chameleons, tend to hang out in a limited number of environments—the same forest, the same tree, the same branch or leaf, for an entire book—or many books—and maybe most of their poems resemble something else: little short stories, for instance, or letters, or archeological descriptions, or even prayers. But the poet may, in the course of a career, a collection or a single poem, switch skins and take on a different appearance. Think of your own prayers, if you make them: do you write them out? revise? workshop them? consider their imagery, metaphor, rhythm, sound patterns, use of rhetorical device?
I take it as a given that, as the poet and physician Robert Bridges, the literary executor of Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote in his last long poem, The Testament of Beauty (1929), man is a “spiritual animal,” and that spirituality, prayer, is “a simple thing, in reach of all”:
prayer is like
those bodily exercises that athletes will use ,
which each must humbly learn, and ere he win to power
so diligently practice, and in such strict course
as will encroach unkindly on the agreements of life:
whence men slouch in the laxity that they call ease,
rather than rouse to acquiring that strength, without which
the body cannot know the pleasure of its full ease,
the leisure of strength in the hard labor of life. (180)
For Max Garland and Susan Firer, God is the God of childhood, a God whose nature and catechesis dominated their early lives; in Garland’s work, especially, that absence and lack reverberates through the poetry, which is more deliberately conceived as autobiography than the other collections considered here. Kentucky Methodist, Milwaukee Catholic—Garland and Firer’s poems resonate with each other in the way that religion, God, figures in their self-representation and identity: first by its presence, then by its absence, then by the continued search for something to replace it. God is a narrative, and sometimes rhetorical, device in their poems, as in the collections of Elder and Kercheval, but both authors suggest that a real search for meaning drives their work, despite skepticism and rhetoric.
Hunger Wide As Heaven (2006) by Garland is essentially a spiritual autobiography of how a belief in the everyday and natural comes to re lace, though perhaps not quite satisfactorily, belief in the extraordinary and supernatural, already, at the book’s outset, fading, in the humorously titled, “I Drift Off During the Waning Moments of Methodism”:
In the beginning it was Sunday
and church everlasting
as if God carved the oak pews stiff
to save the mortal soul
from softness, yet
varnished them slick
to ease the slide
should I fall asleep
and down through the smoky
scuffs and patterns
of the devil’s linoleum. (3)
Maybe it’s the “waning moment of Methodism,” “maybe it’s just boyhood’s end/God watches through the windows.” Already, Garland says “it’s no longer Sunday/and I don’t know what to worship//though a flower comes to mind/that I would like to marry.” “King of the Lilies” explores the faith of his grandmother, “She prayed so long and hard for so little”(10), trying to understand the point, to come to some understanding of her belief: “Maybe even doubt is a little divine….Would despair/be a better flower? I’d believe in a Jesus/who considered that, Grandmother,/as he looked at the fields of lilies afloat”(10). But there’s little comfort in the harsh religion of Garland’s grandmother, or in “Bible Days,” in which God is compared to a knife used to gut fish, a “nail in the palm,” “splintered light,” a lost syllable, a thorn, a wound: “You had to ransack speech/for God. You had to lose good sense/like Jonah, or Job”(12). Likewise in “A Brief Religious History of Bedtime,” God brings small comfort: “The best bet was your worst sin/got lost in the rush hours of God’s attention”(17).
God is also something of a historical construction, or mis-construction in Garland’s poems. In “The Catalpa,” he recollects how, “The Russians were written/ into the Book of Revelations./Riding nightmares would they come/with ash marks on their foreheads. /Thank God the fields were Christian/then. Jesus was our rabbit’s foot”(18). By contrast, “Child Christmas” posits a God that the poet, perhaps self-mockingly, wants: “You could fluff him up,” “I wanted god the snowflake,/shy lamb, spankless star/atop the tree,” “the hay-bound boy/before he ever knew the world/or saw my soul, all briar and want,/or wrecked his heart upon
it”(23). But these are all poems from the first part of Hunger; the second part is college, philosophy, the problem of god, the arguments for and against his existence, St. Augustine on the nature of god and the poet’s critical response, the realization that saints have gaps in their knowledge, that God needs: “But you saw it then/and you know it now./Saint Augustine was wrong./ Whatever made this world/needs watching to live,/listening, swims all night/for what it lacks/even words to say”(36).
The final section of Hunger is a look at what substitutes for God in the poet’s continued search for meaning and sacred language, as well as something of a farewell to the search itself, as here in “You Miss It,” even the absence of absence is felt: “you miss it,/the loneliness…and your own fumbling for sounds,/sequences, syllables//to cast yourself like a spell/into the midst of something/you neither made, nor imagined,/nor could keep from imagining”(76). What to think about now? It’s something akin to the questions Koethe has spent his career asking, if not exactly answering.
Hunger’s final poem, “This Cup,” suggests that the poet has not been able to shake God. The title alludes to Christ’s plea in the garden of Gethsemane for God to “take this cup from me” and seems to acknowledge the fact that our searching, our restlessness, our hunger, is not something we can easily put down, if we can put it down at all. Humorously conceived, Garland’s cup is many things, including “one of those white ceramic cups…A mug, really,” “the cup of necessity,” “the cup of uprightness,” “a shape so blunt and true, this cup/you can’t put down”(83-4).
Susan Firer’s Catholic upbringing figures most obviously in The Lives of the Saints and Everything, poems from which are included in her selected volume, Milwaukee Does Strange Things to People (2007). In it, religion, like so many of the images she employs to describe Milwaukee, is quirky, odd, endearingly strange, and weirdly beautiful—a very different set of connotations than those summoned by Garland’s Methodism, as in this passage from the “The Lives of the Saints and Everything.” Note the pun salter/ psalter, only possible perhaps in snowy-Catholic Wisconsin:
Soon it will be
snow shovel scrape, harps, communion white, and
salters with their orange light topped trucks
spilling blue. But sweet now is this
relic tent of leaves, lighted with all the saints:
Saint Agnes breasts in hand, Saint Antony
ringing bells and riding pigs, my son
and daughter dreaming the wild autumn children
dreams that become their bodies, become the overtures
of their holy, tumultuous, leaf blessed lives. (103)
A characteristic list poem, “My Mothers’ Rosaries’,” details the religion of her youth without passing judgment. “The Head-Carriers” and “Saint Wilgefortis” mine the weirdness of Catholic hagiography (a bottomless well) for material, telling stories also without making judgments about their truth or falsity—their existence is truth enough. As always, Firer brings a fresh, half-flippant, half-serious tone to these narratives, as here when Wilgefortis responds to her father’s directive to marry:
She prayed white to God, prayed
James Brown loud, Wilson
Pickett sincere until God sent her
a big, black-hairy beard. Beard
happy, she’d run it through the tunnel
of her hand like a magician’s silk
scarf trick. She’d shake crumbs
from it after meals. When
the king of Sicily saw her, he
nearly lost his cookies.
Her father had her crucified pronto,
on the spot, one big
bearded X on a cross. (119)
“I, The Excommunicate” enunciates a continued search for meaning, albeit more playfully than Garland, and the continued watch for God, beyond the belief of the narrator, the poet, in her childhood religion: “I look like I’m playing God hooky…but I’m sitting in the God/furniture, feeling the rope burn of God./…I am driving the God car. I have put out/my God traps”(130).
Firer’s more recent poetry doesn’t tend to speak as directly to Catholicism or to religion, except in as much as all of her poetry is praise-song—to weird; to wild; to beauty, and tends toward an eco-spiritualism that occasionally appropriates vocabulary from various religions, including Catholicism, as she does “the stations of the trees”(26) or “takes the communion of stones”(26), finding God and Buddha in the waves (22), or singing “water’s hypnogogic psalms”(19). Firer’s only somewhat tongue-in-cheek credo at the beginning of Milwaukee Does Strange Things to People speaks to this vision of the significance of the everyday, the here and now, as well as to the significance of the word and the importance of poetry over religion: “I believe a word is a cupboard,/that she has bungalows in her blood,/that poetry is a large house with many rooms,/that there is nothing better than weather/& that, if we can, we all should avoid a nailgun to the heart”(“Hello Li Po” 13). For Firer, it seems, God is a name for one of those rooms contained by poetry, perhaps, or herself a house we can raze for beautiful poems, for strange images.
my own heart let me more have pity on
We seem sometimes to be in our adolescence with respect to God: always blaming the parent for what goes wrong. Maybe we need to acknowledge as poets and individuals that we participate in the creation of God, more demonstrably than she in us, and think more deeply about the kind of god we would like to believe in. Maybe this is one way that poetry and religion intersect, even sharing for a little way the same path. God, or our understanding of god, changes—historically, culturally—and though it’s impossible for any one of us individually to create that change alone, we collectively do create change, through our participation or not in the conversation, poem by poem. Here is one of my favorite portrayals of god in a contemporary poem, by Matthea Harvey in Modern Life:
Ode to the Double-Natured Sides of Things
God and the angels arrive in Eden to find only a scattering of stems
on the ground. Noticing how the angels' wings fall from left to right
as they bend over the stems, God invents a more flexible forgive-
ness. Things change just slightly The usual botany class—two rows
of long tables, students on either side with wildflowers in vases be-
tween them—keeps its format, but now, if a boy puts down his refer-
ence book and stares instead at a dot of green on the cheek of the girl
across from him, his essay "How a Leaf So Tiny Got on Her Cheek"
is relevant, may even warrant an "A." Above the sky may be dark.
Below the corn may be dry. Some days recess has to be on the west
side of the school because it's raining on the east side.
Celebrating tolerance and imagination, Harvey envisions a God who resists dualism, too, and “invents a more flexible forgiveness.”
Amaud Jamaul Johnson and Anne Shaw both approach god, a source of metaphor and trouble, uneasily, religion by turns as a historical relic and a thrift-shop where vintage language is available. These books are the prize-winning first collections of gifted younger poets, both given to disassembling, rather than reassembling, imagery of and ideas about God.
Johnson’s Red Summer (2006 and the winner of the Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize), never affirms god or any specific set of beliefs, but refers to him as a problem, “I couldn’t understand how a god/could make one life possible and strip the world/clean of so many”; as a metaphor when speaking of the tortures boys blithely inflict on small creatures: “we laughed/with open mouths until…our throats/were raw with the rightness/of god”(19); as a source of story in the divinely inspired narrative, “Liturgy for Joshua,” whose repeated “On faith they round the city” takes on the burden of the poem’s significance. It is a story whose meaning the poet will not explain to us, a parable; in it words, prayer, belief, faith make things happen. “Prayer for a Practical God” likewise approaches this idea—of matter and spirit affecting each other, more negatively than otherwise:
I’ve seen a man drown
In an inch of imagination
I’ve seen men buried alive
Neck-deep in sunlight
Lord, I aint askin for mountains
But I need something to move
This earth inside me
Or someone to seed my soul (49)
With its italics, I read this poem as a persona piece, although the spiritual crisis alluded to recurs through the book, its significance, compared to the poems of Garland and Firer, unclear. “The Gospel of Accord” ends the book in a state of spiritual ambiguity, using religious images to speak of physical desire: “I built a bone temple,” “Ushering a congregation of women into my body/I spoke only in tongues,” “I tried to hollow my spirit/of want.” In the end,
Still, like some bedeviled light
casting its shadow play along
the walls of my imagination
you kept coming back to me (51)
Maybe the poet’s “you” is a particular woman; perhaps, however, he speaks of god and spirituality itself. Maybe he intends us to read it as both. At any rate, it is harder to isolate a spiritual, rather than a material, reading of the poem, despite the religious word choice: temple, congregation, spoke in tongues, spirit, bedeviled.
Anne Shaw’s finely-crafted first book, Undertow (2007), has received little attention from the state where it was written. Though Shaw now lives in Rhode Island, she spent a number of years in Milwaukee, and Undertow won the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize. It is not an easy book to read, but it is intelligent, controlled and rewarding. Although Shaw is primarily interested in language and its limits, she offers, as part of her project, a critique of Christianity and of a Christian God, which are for her flawed and hopelessly Western concepts that obscure vision and the authentic power and strangeness of the natural world, linked by Shaw to shamanism.
Reminiscent of the harsh God of Garland’s childhood, the God who presided over Containment and the Cold War, “Hymn” offers a reason for making this critique at this time, “as the country goes crazy for jesus and the grey men/in the alley start to stink. I am humming under my breath in the key of doubt/as you pray to the god of washrooms, make us clean./ Each day’s bitter ribbon and its calculus of light. I sing o bastard of my heart/ be still. Your god is the god of mirrors…”(4). In “Dredge,” the poet enacts the poem’s imperative and suggests a way of understanding her poetic apparatus: “dredge/this harbor for anything what can be salvaged”(9), not the items she lists, found in a harbor, but the language that she believes is likewise discarded like objects—engines, fishing poles, bottles, that is, religious language, the language of church, so that her teeth “line up in their pews/await the holy spirit”; “Torque” speaks of “apostolic light”(47); “Enumeration,” a poem assembled as many of Shaw’s are from bits of text, includes altered phrases from the Twenty-third psalm; “Discoverie of Witchcraft” lifts religious discourse from numerous primary and secondary sources. In this piece we see, of course, the evil that people have done in the name of Christianity, a commonplace idea, the interesting thing here that the title of Shaw’s poem is drawn from a witchcraft exposé written already in 1584, which argues that witches did not exist and that confessions were forced.
Like Koethe, Shaw writes recurrently about non-belief, making straightforward statements about it, and like Koethe, she also toys with the absence of self, as well as of god. “Ignis fatuus” begins: “I do not believe in the one great plan./The Maker folding the edges of the single paper crane that is a life”(45). The poem moves through a series of things that are difficult to believe in, leading to the “I”: “Everything argues against it,” and this perhaps is Shaw’s overarching theme.
The visionary experience Shaw writes of at the book’s end is shamanic in nature, not Christian, not western, not human. “Vision” speaks of an encounter with a doe who has survived winter, and the poet watches, trying to learn: “an old intelligence/holds me in its alien regard./Between us, the skin of species/hangs—a hide across a doorway,” though ultimately “Species/is a drifted field, too deep for us to pass through” (55). In “The Visions at Lascaux,” the shaman has more access to that knowledge than the Western poet, though shamanism, for Shaw, like Christianity, is perhaps best understood as a cultural/historical construct rather than a viable and current belief system: “They must have tracked the fire as it fell/and heard the great oak snap as something struck—//daylight found the trunk still smoldering/threads of smoke escaping from the bark//as if the god inside still fought the god/that ate its heart and left its entrails black.//That night the shaman dreamed the dream of trees/fading from the cliff between the worlds”(60).
“When the city falls across our eyes” considers the Christian story of the apocalypse and how it plays out in Quito, Ecuador, home to the “Virgin of the Apocalypse” statue. The setting and the implicit irony that its colonial history creates are especially significant for Shaw and for this Virgin, “perched atop the city,” indifferent to the havoc she wreaks upon it:
She does not worry
about the aftermath
when the crowds are resurrected
and everyone moves on, leaving
the broken houses to their dusk.
Then she will inherit the empty towns
—the ones she’s only looked at from afar—
and walk alone beneath the colored lights. (73)
Religion and God, like poetry, like history, are composed of words, which are, in the end, “a machete we use to slash a path through the ancestral overgrowth,” and myth/religion the flimsy human structures in which we attempt, but ultimately fail, to hide: “And where shall we go now?//Into what strategy of camouflage?” (75)
patience, hard thing!
I’ve been writing this essay “on the road,” having made one of those literary pilgrimages that I enjoy—this time to Stratford (Ontario, not England) to see three plays about, as it turns out, God and religious spectacle—The Winter’s Tale, Evita and The Tempest—I didn’t consciously know they would connect in these ways. I’d never even seen Evita, knew very little about it, but I enjoy the connections and, especially—one of the ways God speaks to me—the act of making connections: the flaunting of the gods, tyranny and miraculous forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale; the hypocrisy and critique of Catholicism as a tool of oppression in Evita; the temptation to cast ourselves as gods and the path to salvation in The Tempest. Having seen my daughter die beautifully once again, this time in the role of Mercutio at the end of Shakespeare camp, I thought that was the end of the story, the end of my essay, too, which I believed I’d finished just before her performance, sitting by the banks of the Avon.
Then we got on our bus to go back to Madison, and spent more than three hours getting through the U.S. border, as first our group of less than thirty men, women and children, mostly foreign, waited in the long, white-tiled “Tunnel to the U.S.,” then were individually queried and searched by customs. Our share of this 150-minute, Midnight-3 a.m. ordeal lasted about 3 minutes, or 2% of the time, the only question I was asked, Why the bus? When you consider that 5 agents at 2 stations were employed at this work, it’s less than half of that, and had everyone been treated as we were, the bus could have gone on its way, allowing everyone to make their connections, in 20-30 minutes, even if one or two people received somewhat more scrutiny. In the end, after patting down pandas, poking through pockets with gloved fingers, requiring a man to put on his coat, presumably to see if it was really his, unrolling camping mats, and shaking out suspiciously thick books by the boards, we were all put back on the bus with our bags and allowed to continue, as the guards outside leaned against brooms, joked among themselves, and looked under the hoods of mini-vans with dark-skinned drivers.
During all of the delay and the journey that did not smoothly follow, I never heard a word of complaint, impatience or anger from the passengers, despite further problems of a backed-up toilet, the late hour, missed connections, and the subsequent break-down of a brand new bus. The little acts of kindness in this situation were particularly meaningful—someone exchanging their seat with another person’s when it wouldn’t recline, a woman offering to share her blanket when the bus got cold, drivers who took the time to explain what was happening. Arriving home the next day, exactly as scheduled, I marveled at that near-miracle, grateful to disembark but equally grateful to have witnessed this parable of individual tolerance, patience, and goodwill in the face of institutional intolerance, suspicion, and inhospitality during my weekend on the road. Pilgrimage, after all, requires obstacles: its goal a deepened union with and understanding of both God and humanity.
God’s a slippery subject. Resistant to definition. Often approached through negative definition, rather than positive. Or through metaphor and parable, language, which as we know, is always breaking down, coming up short. Considering the task I assigned myself for this essay, How do Wisconsin poets write about God?, it’s not surprising that I would wrestle with this same problem. I might have organized my thoughts in many ways—God’s attributes, beliefs about God, recurrent metaphors and images, even something quantitative—how often does God appear in these poems?—or typological—what kind of poems are written about God? lyric poems? narrative ones? short? long? Instead, I have attempted to trace, in this group of recently published books, a few of the ways Wisconsin’s poets construe God: philosophical problem, rhetorical and narrative device, historical (mis)construct. For the most part, any outright statements of belief occur when they are non-belief, and other positive statements are less than straightforward, layered themselves with rhetoric, personae, artifice, irony. They appear, after all, in poems, and these are the devices of poetry.
The Tenting Cantos (2009) and The Foot of the Rainbow (2010) are different. While critical of the appropriation of God and religiosity for materialistic or self-serving ends, they nevertheless both attempt to get beyond the dichotomies of Western/Eastern, of Christian/non-Christian, of belief/non-belief. Neither dogmatically theistic nor cynical, these poems celebrate hope in their different ways, clearing an intellectual and aesthetic space for poetry about God and religion.
I’ve reviewed pieces of R. Virgil Ellis’s marvelous The Tenting Cantos (2009) over the years, as they first became available as performance art issued on DVD, and I can’t possibly do its 100 Cantos justice here or follow either its many interwoven thematic strands, its nested narratives that sometimes span multiple cantos, its web of allusions, or its masterful use of craft, all of which, in their density and their crackling energy, contribute to the total effect of the book and inform Ellis’s life-affirming, duality-busting but fundamentally non-Western, a-religious sense of god and religion. Though he’s just as critical of Western ideology as Anne Shaw, his work is significantly, if guardedly, more hopeful. Reminiscent of Karl Elder in his playful command of rhetorical device, sonic effects, and wide-ranging references to world religions and to other poets, Ellis is a message-driven poet, too, who just as often as not writes overtly political poetry. Though his work is intellectually and artistically complex, it’s not hard to put one’s finger on its central message, and his use of irony, while often keen, is a tool to get us to pay attention to that message. As Ellis writes in his Introduction about the tent:
[it’s a] Western design, pitched and staked in pentatonic planes and Aristotelian angles, but it sags and curves like a sitar, it bellies like Buddha…What I can see or sense is limited by that cloth boundary, which is the wavering outer limit of my senses and my instruments. The evidence in such variable focus must be taken on faith as truth revealed but changeable, must be interpreted by one of the cloth….Yet as I progress in meditation I’m not so sure there’s anything in the tent, or that it’s there, or that there’s anything needing separation or filtering. (3)
Or more playfully in “Canto 01 Hung-up and dried” and speaking from within the tent, Ellis defines the project as a pilgrimage of the mind: “full in retreat from academia and domesticia,/this lonely quest I ply, two-ply, four-ply polyester tread, to follow Buddha”:
So the ironic dovetails and nosedives
incestuous spirals and brittle struts of wit
nosetails and dovedives
until the bi-plane crashes duality.
Oh yeah I want to singah—
now comes a little songah:
Long ago in the Sangha
Divas danced in the Dhamma. (5)
The poems frequently return to that idea of crashing duality and using poetry to do it. Variously called, for example, “The program of the scatter’d poem” (Canto 07), “The end of the reductionist program” (Canto 26), “the tatters of spin-dried Oriental tapestry/[that] must hang out with the laundry of Western folderol” (Canto 30), and the “Trap of Either/Or” (Canto 74), making connections in order to get at truth is the central metaphor and reality of The Tenting Cantos:
someone in the shell of a
white liberal male academic handy-person poet
shall tuck a typewriter (it can be a word-processor)
under one arm and a tradition
under the other (it can be Tibetan Buddhism)
and forge out of sitting meditation
a syncretic (it can be sink-erratic) wayward
and rambling autobio-text-with-graphic
anti-heroic ironic epic mystical oeuvre
in post-Wordsworth or words Woolworth
sometimes dimestore cadences (“Canto 39 Hydrogen sulfide" 60)
As much as anything, The Tenting Cantos is a pilgrimage—with plenty of references throughout to this literary tradition—to nowhere and to everywhere as the poet-narrator so defined meditates on darkness and light, attempting to redefine solipsism as communion, averring that “In this dark all we have left is breath”: “Let the gathering field lead the breath,/the breath the prayer for all beings./The dark is the only void./Celebrate.” (“Canto 99 Meditating in the dark” 144)
And perhaps that’s exactly where Eastern and Western traditions can and do meet: in the significance of breath (“Holy Spirit” in Christianity); in the sense of shared journey toward truth that does not require a particular journey or even a journey at all; in the real (and measurable, as the research of neuroscientist Richard Davidson demonstrates) efficacy of meditation/prayer to change ourselves and our material reality and to create communion.
Thomas R. Smith’s, The Foot of the Rainbow is similarly forthright about its message and spiritual content. The book begins with a poetic credo, “Commitments,” that includes among its propositions a dedication, “To what is true in all religion,” as well as “To the indigenous belief that people/become wiser after death, including our/most bigoted and violent ancestors./(Including us, who to our descendants/are sure to appear bigoted and violent.)”(9).
Pablo Neruda’s odes are a touchstone he returns to often in the book, and “Ode to Thanks,” which borrows its form and title from a poem by Neruda, exemplifies Smith’s brand of plain-speaking craftsmanship, whose purpose is to share not just words, but wise words, with his readers, as he nimbly goes to the core, the purpose, of religion and God, perhaps spirituality in general: to feel grateful to something outside the self and other than the merely human, including perhaps, objects, ideas, numbers and words, like thanks, the word the poem addresses: “you’re the only/prayer we need/utter, a connector/not only of/human hearts/but a bridge/to the heart of God”(68).
The “Hand of Jesus,” an unorthodox shout out to Catholicism, to a God that can subsume male and female, in spite of the religion’s many shortcomings, also provides an explanation for the Catholic insistence on redemptive suffering: “But what it really offers is the nail-/wound in the center of the palm, slitty/and rose-colored like a small vagina/nestled there in its flesh hollow,/the saving femaleness of Jesus.//That wound never heals. That’s why it’s here,/floating above us in passing traffic,/so that maybe on our cross of war and lies,/we’ll take a little of its suffering/to moisten our sorely dry, scabbed hearts”(73).
Not all of Smith’s poems are straightforward about their beliefs. “Snowman” offers, as many do, a profound, but metaphorically delivered insight into the relation of creator/creation: “Because you raise/my spirits, I feel an inward thaw, am not/the wintry person I was an hour ago,/as much now your creation as you are mine”(14). And perhaps that is what poets should remember about the relation of God, words, imagination. Like “The Snowman,” many of Smith’s other poems have a parable-like quality to them, without specifically mentioning any religion or God. “Darkness in the Rear View Mirror” takes place as the poet drives through snow on a winter night: “I need the darkness around my shoulders/to tell me where I come from, a beacon/before me to tell me where I’m going,/as I may lead those coming after me./I need the night to find the lights of home”(25). The book’s title poem, “The Foot of the Rainbow,” is also a road/pilgrimage piece about a topic and an image that we all know we shouldn’t write about for fear of being called sentimental. But there Smith is, taking outlandish risks in order to write about the meaningful, the real, though, to be sure, his poems are grounded in well-chosen words and images.
Smith’s concluding poem, “The Return,” is also about the experience of pilgrimage, in this case to celebrate the solstice:
And soon enough we got up
again and wandered on
into whatever we had to do
on that day, though not unchanged,
having accompanied a little distance
on the morning road of their return
those illuminated pilgrims. (87)
Even when accidental, the poem suggests, pilgrimage enlargens and unites us, not only with those who make a particular journey, but also with all who make life’s journey, whose meaning deepens as we grow in understanding and appreciation of our union on the road.
This is not a review-essay, not a personal essay: it’s a set of connections, a road map, really, of my thinking about the intersections of God and poetry, one that doesn’t fold back like it should, one that has holes in the paper and seams that erase the words. If you have read this far and read my commentary on all of the authors, I have likely tried your patience. I’ve also asked you to make connections between my story, the poets I’ve been discussing, and the stories those poems tell, and I thank you for trying. It’s hard to live without a story. Do we really want to? Koethe raises that question in “Götternachmittag,” suggesting that the story, the myth, is crushing:
The universe curls its fist,
Squeezing the soul into a ball,
A particle in a history
Written by either them or it,
As the case proves to be.
I passed into the afternoon
Of the gods, imprisoned forthwith
By the sweep of its narrative,
paralyzed by the myth
Of those who’d had the privilege
To bear its cross, and then expire
Beneath its weight. How shall I live?
And how should I aspire? (SH 57)
Koethe’s “I” is so solitary at the end of this characteristic interior monologue, burdened both by the presence of story and its absence.
In a similar situation, Prospero/Shakespeare, imprisoned on his island, alone on stage and also stripped of magic—lacking spirits and art, turns outward, to us, his audience, and asks for our indulgence—our prayers—in The Tempest’s final lines:
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
We’re always re-imagining God, who is undeniably a product of history, of rhetoric, of philosophy and of the imagination, as well as (I believe), a real presence. That is how the messages of God come to us, Saint Joan says in G.B. Shaw’s play: through the voices of our imagination, though what we hear there and our response to it is, of course, subject to scrutiny, to discernment, to conscience and to ethics. Literature, poetry, is one place where our images and re-images of God play out; it is also a place where we may encounter God’s real presence—irony, humor, rhetoric and all, regardless of our beliefs. It’s hard for a contemporary reader to see Prospero’s speech as anything other than rhetoric, “prayer” a clever metaphor for praise, as if we are really being asked here to clap. Consider, however, a more profound implication—that the author of these lines requests, at the close of his last play, for prayer rather than praise, asking his audience to help release his soul from purgatory itself; if you indulge that reading of the metaphor, then say a prayer for Shakespeare some time, even if you don’t think you mean it.
The subtitles in this essay are phrases from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ six “Terrible Sonnets,” as well as his final poem, the sonnet, “To R.B” (Robert Bridges).
Wendy Vardaman author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press 2009), is a co-editor of Verse Wisconsin. Visit wendyvardaman.com.