No moments of life’s span draw us to look for God’s presence more than birth and death do. And poetry, one of our vehicles for stretching our gaze toward the divine, often focuses on these beginning and ending points of the human earthly journey. The example I write about here is Kate Daniels’s poem “Inscrutable,” which takes as its subject life’s starting point, entering into a mother’s experience of childbirth.
Kate Daniels is a poet, mother and literature professor at Vanderbilt University. Her volume of poems Four Testimonies testifies to God’s often shocking ways of pulling us into his life. The book’s presiding spirit is Simone Weil, the mid-20th-century French philosopher and mystic. Weil challenged the very notion of “searching” for God. It is God who searches for us, she insisted. All we can do is look toward God with the most intense longing, while abandoning the desire for anything except God’s love. No “muscular effort” will get us to God, Weil writes in Waiting for God (1973), but “only waiting, attention, silence, immobility, constant through suffering and joy.”
Four Testimonies gives us a range of characters who wait for God with the utmost attention, some through extremities of suffering that would seem beyond endurance. There are extremities of joy as well in these poems, particularly in the section called “Portrait of the Artist as Mother,” from which “Inscrutable” is taken. But whether the people in Daniels’s poems experience suffering or joy or a blend of both, they meet God as they consent to their situation. Just as Simone Weil is the theologian of radical acceptance, Kate Daniels is its poet.
The face seen
for the first time
screwed up and wetted
with the juices of my body,
the hair swirled down
into flattened, greasy
curls, the mathematical
perfection of the four
extremities, the primitive
muscles of the mouth and jaw
already shaped around sucking,
and just the goddamn mystery
of it all—why there is
anything, anything at all
rather than nothing emerging
from the bloody hole
in my opened body, why
anything like this face, this
body that slithers from mine,
this call to claim it
undimmed after eons, irresistible
and thrilling as sexual
longing, why God leaning over
the paradise He made, why
splitting Himself to become
the first creature,
why in love with the world
for the rest of eternity,
alone no longer, inviolate
no more. Why God? Why love? Why
this infant sucking me and why
me—desperate and hemorrhaging
on the surgical table—why
weeping with gratitude
to be this way,
exactly this way, instead of some other?
From Four Testimonies (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1998)
Could there be a poem with more bodiliness than this one? Look first at this poem just as a visual shape on the page. See how long and skinny it is? How it starts at the top with a thin bit of text, poking its way out like a newborn baby’s head, then toward the bottom suddenly bursts its right margin into questions: “Why God? Why love? Why…?”
Questions, yes. But they are all one question: why? Ten times the poem wails out the primal question “why?” It is the question with which young children notoriously bombard their parents, isn’t it? In fact, the poem looks on the page like the squirming squiggly body of a question.
But back to the beginning of this breathtaking, intensely gripping poem. It begins in utter concreteness: “The face seen.” For 11 lines, Daniels scrutinizes the face of the baby just emerged from her womb, gobbling up with her language every detail of this wondrous new creature. And then suddenly the wonder itself overwhelms her: the minutely observed details burst open with a gasp at “just the goddamn mystery/ of it all.”
And here is where the whys begin. At first they are whys about the mystery of this particular new human life: “why there is/ anything, anything at all/ rather than nothing emerging/ from the bloody hole/ in my opened body.” Then in the very same breath, the same grammatical flow (for there has been no period in the poem yet), the mystery of this moment of her child’s birth zooms out into the “eons” over which she and this very child seem to have been connected. The “call to claim it” then overflows, still in the same grammatical onrush, into the astonishing image of sexual longing, so that the sexual desire that led to the conception of this child enfolds the mother’s relation to the child itself.
But the “longing” does not stop here. As the commas keep spiraling us onward and outward, we are tumbled from this sexual longing right into God: “…longing, why God leaning over….”To call this image startling is a euphemism. The link of the “l”-words makes of God a lover, leaning over his creation in—yes—sexual desire.
And now we must pause, even though the poem does not. Look at where the tumbling out of mystery upon mystery has taken us. From the just-born baby’s face we have come to God “splitting Himself to become/ the first creature” (Adam? Jesus? both?) and remaining “in love with the world/ for the rest of eternity.” The awesome mystery of childbirth and the awesome mystery of God’s creation are merged. Both are the mystery of love.
But God in love? What might that mean? The poem surges onward in quest of a way to picture it. Where we land is with God “alone no longer, inviolate/ no more.” Daniels’s line-break clarifies her astounding theological vision. In that single line, a God who had been “alone” and “inviolate” is so no longer—because he has given himself over to love’s desire. Like a woman in sexual embrace, he has opened himself to being “violated” by love.
No wonder the poem skips a beat after the word “inviolate.” We need a breath to absorb the implications of this image of God’s creative act. So the next line takes a deep gulp of space before coming out with the finality of “no more.” And to stop the poem further in its tracks, here is its first and only period.
Not that the 29 preceding lines have formed a grammatically viable sentence. They have been a spiraling of subject clauses—first the noun clauses scrutinizing the newborn (“the face…, the hair…, the mathematical perfection…, the primitive muscles…”), then the “why” clauses scrutinizing the mystery of creation (“why there is anything…, why anything like this face…, why God leaning over…, why splitting Himself…, why in love with the world…”)—but nary a verb to make the sentence complete. The effect is to leave us hanging with the unaccountable wonder of it all. The mystery of creation is not meant to be solved; the poem is clear about that. The mystery—as Kate Daniels’s “Inscrutable” engages it—moves us to fragments of intense observation and to questions whose tone is an impassioned search.
But this is an impassioned search that embraces as well an acceptance of never arriving at the answer. The poem’s final lines condense this experience of the whole. They are a concatenation of whys— “Why God? Why love? Why/ this infant sucking me and why/ me…”—that bring the poem back to the very concrete newborn baby, whose birth got the poem going, at the same time as they swirl out to embrace the mother/poet herself. Her absolute acceptance of the mind-bending wonder of her place at that moment in the mystery of creation is the poem’s closing attitude. Yet her acceptance itself is a question, a why.
People often say of a baby’s face that it is “inscrutable.” They also say it of the divine, of God’s “inscrutable” ways. Daniels takes this term for her title and plunges headlong into a probing of inscrutability itself. She probes by scrutinizing the inscrutable with the tireless interrogating force of poetic attention. And where does this onrush of eager interrogation get her? To an equally inscrutable “weeping with gratitude” that she, her newborn and God himself are “exactly this way,” though why they are will forever be left hanging.
As epigraph for the section of Four Testimonies in which “Inscrutable” appears, Daniels chose a passage from Simone Weil’s essay “The Love of God and Affliction”:
When an apprentice gets hurt, or complains of being tired, the workmen and peasants have this fine expression: “It is the trade entering his body.” Each time that we have some pain to go through, we can say to ourselves quite truly that it is the universe, the order and beauty of the world and the obedience of creation to God that are entering our body. After that how can we fail to bless with tenderest gratitude the Love that sends us this gift?
Meeting God’s Love at the core of our bodily life: this is Weil’s vision that Daniels (yes) embodies in her poem.