Tuesday Poetry

It appears that there is a literature I have not seen: but I do think that these are poets of my generation, and I’m getting old. The critics are seeing aged trees, not new shoots.

Faith, being the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, has never been easy to portray aesthetically. This is why Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, has to throw up his hands in incomprehension when faced with Abraham’s trust in a God he scarcely even knows. In any time or place, a strong and vivid and truthful story about faith is a rare bird indeed.

By contrast, this seems to me a moment rich in strong religious poetry — but that will have to be a topic for another post.

Alan Jacobs

The challenge of expressing faith is not new, nor is there a lack of literature. The trouble for the poet instead is that he has a surfeit of masters, and in a time that craves novelty over quality, that makes writing poetry a minefield of accusations of mere pastiche.

Anyway, here are two American examples. The first is a bit glib, but still better than most modernist stuff.

Unholy Sonnet 1

Dear God, Our Heavenly Father, Gracious Lord,
Mother Love and Maker, Light Divine,
Atomic Fingertip, Cosmic Design,
First Letter of the Alphabet, Last Word,
Mutual Satisfaction, Cash Award,
Auditor Who Approves Our Bottom Line,
Examiner Who Says That We Are Fine,
Oasis That All Sands Are Running Toward.

I can say almost anything about you,
O Big Idea, and with each epithet,
Create new reasons to believe or doubt you,
Black Hole, White Hole, Presidential Jet.
But what’s the anything I must leave out? You
Solve nothing but the problems that I set.

Mark Jarman

This is better and is very much of my generation: we were the first to be told not to tan. I can recall my running coach being felled with melanoma. Like most Pakeha who get to middle age, I have had lesions removed.

Skin Cancer

Balmy overcast nights of late September;
Palms standing out in street light, house light;
Full moon penetrating the cloud-film
With an explosive halo, a ring almost half the sky;
Air like a towel draped over shoulders;
Lightness or gravity deferred like a moral question;
The incense in the house lit; the young people
Moving from the front door into the half-dark
And back, or up the stairs to glimpse the lovers’ shoes
Outside the master bedroom; the youngest speculating;
The taste of beer, familiar as salt water;
Each window holding a sea view, charcoal
With shifting bars of white; the fog filling in
Like the haze of distance itself, pushing close, blurring.

As if the passage into life were through such houses,
Surrounded by some version of ocean weather,
Lit beads of fog or wind so stripped it burns the throat;
Mildew-spreading, spray-laden breezes and the beach sun
Making each grain of stucco cast a shadow;
An ideal landscape sheared of its nostalgia;
S. with his black hair, buck teeth, unsunned skin,
Joking and disappearing; F. doing exactly the same
But dying, a corkscrew motion through green water;
And C. not looking back from the car door,
Reappearing beside the East River, rich, owned, smiling at last.

Swains. and nymphs. And news that came with the sea damp,
Of steady pipe-corrosions, black corners,
Moisture working through sand lots, through slab floors,
Slowly, with chemical, with molecular intricacy,
Then, bursting alive: the shrieked confessions
Of the wild parents; the cliff collapse; the kidnap;
The cache of photos; the letter; the weapon; the haunted dream;
The sudden close-up of the loved one’s degradation.

Weather a part of it all, permeating and sanctifying,
Infiltrating and destroying; the sun disc,
Cool behind the veil of afternoon cloud,
With sun spots like flies crawling across it;
The slow empurpling of skin all summer;
The glorious learned flesh and the rich pallor
Of the untouched places in the first nakedness;
The working of the lesion now in late life,
Soon to be known by the body, even the one
Enduring the bareness of the inland plains,
The cold fronts out of Canada, a sickness
For home that feels no different from health.

Mark Jarman