Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Upside of Terror?

A review of Compass of Affection by Scott Cairns and Yellowrocket by Todd Boss.
"Terror's potential as a creative source is all but unrecognizable in today's religious poetry."
Compass of Affection, by Scott Cairns.
Paraclete Press. $25.00.

The inevitable, intermittent terror of a life lived in the Christian faith has produced some of our greatest poetry. The dramatic nature of the religion, coupled with poets’ tendencies to be somewhat dramatic themselves, has also produced some of our greatest hyperbole. When Hopkins starts a poem, “No worst, there is none,” or when Donne ends by avowing, “Those are my best days, when I shake with fear,” we are reminded that the deepest suffering remains unwritten, and that any transcription represents an act of comparative comfort. Personal experience, or history, or the latest news from Darfur can reveal literature’s insufficiency in this regard, but our best books discover it on their own: “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” (King Lear); “And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven” (Paradise Lost).

Terror’s potential as a creative source is all but unrecognizable in today’s religious poetry. Many critics would even contend that the genre as such no longer exists (witness Harold Bloom’s fascinating but labored attempt to articulate “the American religion” in his recent anthology). Labels aside, however, it seems clear that past pursuits of “a Discontent / Too exquisite—to tell” (Dickinson) have been replaced by slacker, more self-deprecating pieties. Instead of confronting you with a soul drowning in God, the contemporary religious poem is much more likely to invite you in for a dip.

* * *

If “Jesus” is the most frequent word in Scott Cairns’s book of new and selected poems, it must be closely followed by “embarrassment.” Cairns’s dual self-consciousness—about being a poet and being a Christian—can hijack his muse, making his poems sound like confessions within confessions:
As you might expect, my momentary vision barely qualifies: you know, sensation something like the merest swoon, some uncertainty about why all of a sudden the back garden, its bamboo and rose, the reaching pecans (one’s apparent field contracting to a field of vision) took to trembling, as well as other accompanying uncanniness.
          —From From the Father
In this passage, Cairns’s sheer talkiness—the constant qualifiers, the self-deprecation manifested as inarticulacy: “barely,” “something like,” “some uncertainty”—undercuts the compelling narrative and subtle metric. That final phrase, “as well as other accompanying / uncanniness,” represents a characteristic Cairns move: instead of risking detailed disclosure of his vision, he reverts to ironic abstraction, assuring us that nothing too weird has happened. It is a move that, in its overt concern not to abandon the reader to esoteric particulars, ends up alienating the reader by providing sloppy witness. Too often in Compass of Affection, Cairns’s attempts at ingratiation with his audience occur at the expense of faithfulness to the complexities of experience.

Sometimes I can’t help but read Cairns’s inability to treat his visions and intuitions seriously as a failure of faith itself. (Here I’m following Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of faith as loyalty to our response at the moment of our rarest experience.) 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.

A poem titled “The Holy Ghost” begins, “Don’t worry about it.” A poem about heresy includes the lines, “when we’re talking / heresy, I’d like to think I’m siding with the angels” (“Adventures in New Testament Greek: Hairesis”). Sometimes Cairns does attempt a more candid tone: “Terror sometimes sports an up side, this time / serves as tender, hauling you to port” (“Having Descended to the Heart”). Here the italics are meant to wryly delineate an insight, but only end up emphasizing how strange the familiar Christian concept—“Our light affliction . . . worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17)—sounds in this poet’s voice. When Cairns writes about paintings and stories, his strict meter and relentless alliteration can feel similarly forced:
                         still the sanguine flow
coursed tincturing the creases of his cheek
and wended as he walked to bless the bleak.
     —From Three Descents
Cairns is most at home when he’s literally at home, meditating on a brief reprieve from “daylight’s demanding distractions,” where faith becomes “some kind of strenuous chore.” His excellent recurring phrase, “slow pilgrim,” evokes the simultaneous connotations of uncertainty and purpose one finds in Dante’s peregrin throughout his journey.

* * *

And still I have suffered
an acute lack of despair. Why is that?
Is Raimundo stupid?
Am I unfeeling?
     —From The Translation of Raimundo Luz
There’s a big difference between empathizing with poetry and being moved by it. At the same time, who can blame a religious poet these days for trying too hard to endear himself to his audience? In our culture, where intellectualism and religious belief are often perceived as inversely proportional, a poet who writes clearly about the concept of metanoia must worry who’s listening. It’s no surprise that apology has replaced anguish as the primary mode of religious poetry—and I wonder: has religion descended to poetry’s intellectually marginalized status, or vice versa? And what does our apologetic reflex toward both poetry and religion say about the durability of either in the twenty-first century?

Out of all the responses to the recent onslaught against religion, few have looked to verse for examples of faith’s and intellect’s symbiotic capabilities. The “cognitive triumph,” to use Allen Grossman’s phrase, evidenced by a good poem provides a necessary complement (and antidote) to the reductionist theorizing of the “New Atheist” debates. Scott Cairns is a poet who, when he combines his exoteric voice with attention to the esoteric nature of God’s work in the world, can provide that antidote:
I had a vision once
of light, or was it heat,
or one brief pulsing stutter
—as a hummingbird
visiting my chest quite near
the heart. You will believe this
or you won’t.
     —From In Hope of Recollection
In the leap of faith which that last sentence demands (more of itself than of us, perhaps), we experience the aesthetic upside of terror. I don’t mean Cairns’s frequent anxiety about leaving the reader behind. I mean the fear that accompanies a writer’s faithfulness to his or her most incredible experience, the fear that accompanies the faithful attempt to render the experience into words—and, when the experience is no longer anything but words, the fear that accompanies faith.

Yellowrocket, by Todd Boss.
W.W. Norton & Company. $23.95.

Early in his first book, in the midst of comparing the sound of an incoming cyclone to the sound of a nearing commuter train, Todd Boss reflects on his quotidian approach to terror:

to compare a work of nature to so
          tame a thing as steel wheels riding parallel rails,
but isn’t that how terror assails us: by masquerading
          its powers as everyday things, spinning clouds

into funnels, towers into tunnels?
     —From Not Crash, Nor Roar
The queerness of the comparison stands only if we accept the comfort of the everyday, if we really feel at home on our morning commute. Personally, I can’t believe that any imagination jarred by art could uphold the dialectic between domesticity and disaster very long—even for the sake of art. Happily, Boss’s best poems present a more nuanced view of daily life, where terror doesn’t lurk behind every curtain but inheres with the passage of time:
One can even miss

the basso boom
of the ocean’s
rumpus room

and its rhythm.

A man can leave
this earth

and take nothing
—not even

with him.
     —From One Can Miss Mountains
The way this poem simultaneously celebrates existence and mourns its insufficiency brings to mind Randall Jarrell’s observation that “The ways we miss our lives are life.” Boss’s elegy expresses loss most sharply through its various delights, from the word “rumpus” to that final, quirky rhyme. As with the colors and cadences of the world itself, the poem’s pleasures remind us how much we have to lose.

About half of the poems in Yellowrocket contain the acoustical energy and plain-spoken wisdom of “One Can Miss Mountains” (I would be remiss not to suggest the primary influence of Kay Ryan). Many of the other poems, however, filled with flat stanzas like—
God wrote a poem about me,
which should have been flattering,
but He let me read it,
and it was awful
     —From Worst Work
—should have been omitted from the book. The longish title poem, “Yellowrocket,” a recounting of Boss’s family history on a Wisconsin farm, stands out as an impressive mixture of narrative and lyric compression. At the end of the poem, the speaker’s emotional ambivalence about his family’s history is enacted through the discovery of an off rhyme, which—like the uprooting of a beautiful weed—pleases and unsettles in equal measure:
     Call it love,
but if you call it love,
call it a love that
persisted, that

stained the palms
and reeked when
you pulled it,
like yellowrocket.
Precisely because of its compression, poetry like this demands constant rhythmic invention to avoid sounding overdetermined, like a nursery rhyme. To my ear, “Yellowrocket” is almost spoiled in the preceding three stanzas when Boss’s rhyme-generated syntax becomes pat:
the otherwordly lull
of the breeze in our

break of white pines,
5-wire fences posted
in good straight lines,
the easy spirals
of the golden eagles

that nested in our
hardwoods’ crowns,
the kind of sky
in which a small boy
The line breaks don’t stop us from noticing the way every clause here ends in a thump, as if Boss’s phrase-maker suddenly jammed. Deterministic rhyme also compromises what else is going on in the poem. Pursuit of an echo leads Boss to a clichéd sentiment—“the kind of sky / in which a small boy / drowns”—which contradicts the more restrained nostalgia in the poem’s ending quoted above.

When sound isn’t the driving force, Boss’s poems suffer from his less developed rhetorical talents. He is not, for example, a great crafter of analogies. His poems about his wife and children demand metaphors that transcend, rather than reiterate, the quotidian—instead, Boss gives us, “our better days like lighter weather,” “the clogged pipe / of our marriage,” “a neglected / load of regrets on his clothesline.” Nor do Boss’s attempts at humor do much to enliven his narratives, as in this encounter with a supermarket cashier:
“It’s your diction,”
she says softly.

I check my fly before
signing my name.
     —From She Rings Me Up
A different poem succeeds, however, when its vivid descriptions of a household—
Crusty screws
affix the soap dish

Spack of caulk
slops a crack of tile
     —From Six Nights in a Hotel
—imply the similar disrepair of human relationships within.

To my mind, Yellowrocket can be divided into three sections of nearly equal size: poems that shouldn’t have made the cut, poems that display glimpses of Boss’s gift, and Todd Boss poems. Of this last category, “The Hush of the Very Good,” “Ere We Are Aware,” “Nocturne,” “Constellations,” “One Can Miss Mountains,” and “How Smokes the Smolder” demonstrate his knack for the short, domestic lyric. All these poems share the syntactical intelligence that close attention to sound provides. Listen to the way momentum builds as rhymes rub against each other, as sound unwinds to pitch-perfect sense at the end of “Nocturne”:
   the regular

click and chime
   of passing time,

like water, turns
   a waterwheel

that turns a gear
   that turns a stone

that turns upon
   another stone

and fine and
   finer in between

our dreams like grain
   are ground.
Originally Published: January 30th, 2009

Nate Klug was born in Minnesota, grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and earned a BA in English at the University of Chicago and a Masters from Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Rude Woods (The Song Cave, 2013), a book-length adaptation of Virgil’s Eclogues, and Anyone (University of Chicago, 2015). In 2010 he was awarded a Ruth...

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  1. January 12, 2010

    I like this this essay a lot, and I'd like to add that I don't think it's contemporary religious poets alone who write with such subdued, and apologetic tones/undertones, but contemporary poets throughout the field. Doubt, after all, is perhaps the most defining characteristic of the post-modern mindset--to doubt one's self as well as one's experiences, be they spiritual or otherwise. Considering this, it's no surprise that religious poets would qualify and undercut their depictions of the religious experience using self-deprecation and irony--irony and self-deprication are in-keeping with post-modern angst.
    I don't read any poets today who write with the same poise, and grandeur as say the Metaphysical Poets, or Milton, or even Tennyson, or Yeats (pre-Esra Pound).

  2. February 10, 2010
     Daryl Wells

    What is Mr. Klug’s review but a refreshment? He plunges into the bulky needles and honed stakes required of a believer to sustain in such a skeptical time as the modern era. Even I who dogpaddles in the heated lakes of Gnosticism know that if God were a humorous Deity mankind tosses and turns on the outskirts of that jest. Thus, although like a second-hand smoker my opinions are mostly watered by the breaths of Klug’s, I would agree to flatter a crowd at the expense of diluting the affliction required by one’s own Savior is no less appalling (and parodying) than a chuckled Amen at the end of a Pastor’s prayer.

  3. October 19, 2011
     David Piery

    I really like this essay. I'm currently working on my literary criticism as
    an undergraduate at The University of Minnesota and would like to say I
    love your style. All praise on this end. Keep up the clear and purposeful