In his review of Scott Cairns’s Compass of Affection, Nate Klug has charted a map of misreading that could leave many sailors lost at sea. Klug states, “I don’t mean that a religious poetics shouldn’t be hesitant or self-doubting—on the contrary. Rather, a religious poetics that uses surface irony as its primary mode of self-interrogation hasn’t gone deep enough.” To my mind, irony is a hesitation, as well as a form of self-doubt, especially in Cairns’s poems. To write poetry that addresses the spiritual is a form of bravery these days, and if irony helps make these poems possible, three cheers for that. I don’t believe Klug has thought his thesis through.
What Klug calls “attempts at ingratiation with his audience” is also a misreading of these poems, especially of their tone. Self-mockery by the narrator eases the reader into poems that address religious experience and, far from reducing their power, gives them terra firma on which to stand, and shine.
I am mystified by Klug’s statement, “If ‘Jesus’ is the most frequent word in Scott Cairns’s book of new and selected poems, it must be closely followed by ‘embarrassment.’” I found a grand total of two uses of “Jesus” in these poems, and six uses of “embarrassment.” I think perhaps Nate Klug should be embarrassed.