Chasing the Sacred
"Batter my heart, three-personed God." "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." "Slouching towards Bethlehem." In each generation, orthodox and maverick poets have offered fresh insights into age-old religious truths. George Herbert blazed new trails for devotional poetry; Emily Dickinson explored the landscape of the soul and eternity; T. S. Eliot drew from Anglicanism’s rich liturgical tradition to write modernist poems. But where are the religious poets in America today? While we may not have a Gerard Manley Hopkins in the making, several U.S. poets are writing striking poems about the sacredoften under the radar of the religiophobic American poetry establishment.
While celebrated as a black poet and a woman poet, Lucille Clifton has a remarkableand wholly originalreligious sensibility that is often overlooked. Her poems, collected, for example, in Good Woman and Blessing the Boats, frequently speak in the voices of biblical characters. Jesus’ cousin John describes himself as just only a baptist preacher/ somebody bigger than me coming/ in blackness like a star. In one of a series of poems about Jesus’ mother, Mary is an old woman worrying now for/ another young girl asleep, a girl who might be called by God. Lucifer, whose grace is ashard, explains that it was/ to be/ I who was called son.
Clifton, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, is understandably obsessed with humanity’s loss of innocence. Many of her Genesis-inspired poems hew to a traditional, if erroneous (from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine) view that links sex and the Fall. Interestingly, the most startling lines in her Eden sequence come not from Adam, Eve and Luciferall of whom have extensive speaking rolesbut from the angels who stand looking on, helpless witnesses. Stumbling upon Adam and Eve coupling (with halos fading), a shocked angel says, I knew/ they could do evil/ with it and I knew/ they would. After more breakdowns in the garden, the anxious angels are left
silent all of us
going about our
This flawed world leaves God a lot to answer for, argues the Jewish poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker. In her theologically riveting book The Volcano Sequence, God is the tangled quarrel in my art.
Wrestling with the Hebrew Scriptures, Ostriker challenges a capricious deity who seeks adulation from the people he treats most harshly. In addendum to jonah, God wants Jonah to praise me hotly and tells him that in Nineveh it will be your word against/ mine. This God doesn’t make good on promises: statements that the meek will be vindicated and nations not lift up swords continued to be contrafactual/ and very beautiful.
In a poem not included in The Volcano Sequence, Ostriker paints God as a slick salesman who cons Abraham into a covenant and requires a memorable logoa mark of absolute distinction, it would only hurt for a minute. In one of many poems entitled psalm, Ostriker refuses to be a God patsy:
I will not make a joyful
noise to you, neither
will I lament
for I know you drink
This God can be compassionate, however, wincing into myself like a sea urchin when seeing a creature in pain. Perhaps, Ostriker says, we demand too much of God; in a poem that catalogues the wonders of biology and geology, Ostriker admits: You have done enough, engineer/ how dare we ask you for justice.
Ostriker would be the first to admit that her art’s tangled quarrel is a lover’s quarrel with God, embittered and angry though it may be. Her entire book can be seen as both the loving long distance call that sustains the link between God and humanity, and the gnashing of teeth and slamming doors that are the flip side of that relationship.
In the work of the Catholic poet Catherine Sasanov, the phone call to God is mediated by saints. (Full disclosure: I began an ongoing correspondence with Sasanov after reading one of her poems in the magazine Commonweal.) The praying women in her All the Blood Tethers seek to jam Heaven’s switchboard/ long-distance dialing/ with charges reversed as they grope for intercession. In one poem, the speaker’s mother deals roughly with her patron saint, dragging her out of Heaven by [her] hair.
Sasanov’s theology is as incarnational as meat. In the universe of these poems, the saints’ blood, bones and other relics are direct lines to the sacred, conducting holiness like copper conducts electricity. Stigmata, scabs and wounds (either opening or closing) appear in nearly every poem. God feeds on each prayer’s/ discrete, smoldering/ carcass; an Italian saint who sought to silence the flesh now has her coarsely ground bone/ tweezered into lockets. Communication difficulties arise when the necessary saints are not available. In one poem, the speaker laments my patron saint that the church expunges from Heaven. Later in the same poem, she regrets that when her grandmother died, the saint you needed most had yet to be born.
Some of Sasanov’s high-voltage lines and metaphors are worthy of Sylvia Plath. The crucifixion is a murder scene swarming with angels; a wooden statue of a soul burning in Purgatory describes himself as fuel/ feeding my own torment; a suicide confesses that his sin is thievery: I stole my future/ so I am a criminal. Sasanov’s characterssaintly or sinfulare constantly in dialogue with the sacred, despite knowing what damage/ praying has done.
What Jane Hirshfield’s poems lack in dazzling one-liners they make up for in psychological insight. A Buddhist who spent years in a Zen monastery, Hirshfield is keenly attuned to the perils of self, a word that appears frequently in her poems. One could almost accuse her of being absorbed in getting rid of self-absorption, if that were not such a worthy goal. A day comes/ when the mouth grows tired/ of saying I,’ she reflects in her latest book of poems, After. But try as we might, desireBuddhism’s implacable demonkeeps its grip on us: I wanted something, I wanted. I could not have it. The trick is not to identify our wants and losses with our true nature:
A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, Hand me the sack,
but we get the weight.
To think that the sand or stones are the self is an error.
But too often this detachment eludes us. In Envy: An Assay, a person’s fate is to be yourself, both punishment and crime. Trying to live in the present, as Buddhism counsels, is nearly impossible. Addressing the moment,’ Hirshfield says, A knife cannot cut itself open,/ yet you ask me both to be you and to know you. In the end, however, Hirshfield’s serene poems navigate such ambiguity and lapses, embracing a clear-eyed acceptance of the self with all its attachments.
Scott Cairns, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, is just as alert but less charitable toward the self’s failures, which he would not scruple to call sins. Some of the verse in Compass of Affection makes the facetious case that modern man does not need the salvation Christianity offers: The halt and the lame arranged to have their hips replaced./ The lepers coated their sores with a neutral foundation. Cairns blames Americans’ consumerism and overindulgence for what he perceives as our spiritual decline. In Late Apocalypse, he assumes a prophet’s voice, recording a vision of seven bright convenience storesseven Wal-Marts in a row, and lo, flowing in and outcorpulent, unhealthy apes. The promise of the beatitudes has not come to pass: we know the meek/ are available for all manner of insult. The one consolation for today’s holy people, Cairns implies, is anonymity: If the pure are anywhere present, we wouldn’t/ know them, which is surely to their advantage.
In this age of relativism, a little judgmentalism can be refreshing. But like that of several contemporary Orthodox writers, Cairns’s judgmentalism is not always instructive; it is self-incriminating and can be tiresome. His verse also romanticizes the poor. Nevertheless, his poems’ study of the kingdom of anxiety versus the kingdom of God offers some bracing wisdom.
And the poems do hold out some hope for today’s blinkered, mall-hopping sinners. However ineffectual our attempts at righteousness, God sees our hearts. In the poem Possible Answers to Prayer, a listening God says: Your intermittent concern for the sick,/ the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes/ recognizable to me, if not to them. In time, Cairns hints, we may realize that sin is not so bad/ as it is a waste of time.
The market today is flooded with spiritual verse about a glowy Divine Presence beaming down on us. But a little digging in other places reveals fine poems specifically about religious concerns, poems that struggle with soul-twisting theological issues in vivid ways. Contemporary Christian poets like Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Li-Young Li grapple with biblical themes. Among poets who have died in the past decade, Denise Levertov of the United States, Poland’s Czeslaw Milosz and Israel’s great poet Yehuda Amichai offer rich and harrowing meditations on suffering and theodicy. Moving into the past, Sufi poets like Rumi and Hafiz have been adequately translated into English only recently.
It remains to be seen if a Dante is in our immediate future. Meanwhile, Americans have satisfying religious poetry to draw from, poetry whose effects will vary according to the reader’s state of mind and soul. Ideally, the effects should be as unpredictable as those of the sacred stories Ostriker describes:
sometimes the stories take you and fling you against a wall
sometimes you go right through the wall
Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980
By Lucille Clifton
BOA Editions Ltd. 1987 276p $18.50 (pbk)
Blessing the Boats
New and Selected Poems 1988-2000
By Lucille Clifton
BOA Editions Ltd. 2000 145p $16 (pbk)
The Volcano Sequence
By Alicia Suskin Ostriker
Univ. of Pittsburgh Press 2002 136p $12.95 (pbk)
All the Blood Tethers
By Catherine Sasanov
Northeastern Univ. Press 2002 82p $15.95 (pbk)
By Jane Hirshfield
HarperCollins 2006 112p $23.95 (hc)
Compass of Affection
Poems New and Selected
Paraclete Press 2006 161p $25 (hc)