The Upside of Terror?
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 Labels aside, however, it seems clear that past pursuits of “a Discontent / Too exquisite—to tell” (Dickinson) have been replaced by slacker, more self-deprecating pieties.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.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.
—From From the Father
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 flowCairns 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.
coursed tincturing the creases of his cheek
and wended as he walked to bless the bleak.
—From Three Descents
And still I have sufferedThere’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?
an acute lack of despair. Why is that?
Is Raimundo stupid?
Am I unfeeling?
—From The Translation of Raimundo Luz
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 onceIn 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.
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
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:
Queer,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:
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
One can even missThe 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.
the basso boom
of the ocean’s
and its rhythm.
A man can leave
and take nothing
—From One Can Miss Mountains
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,—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:
which should have been flattering,
but He let me read it,
and it was awful
—From Worst Work
Call it love,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:
but if you call it love,
call it a love that
stained the palms
and reeked when
you pulled it,
the otherwordly lullThe 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.
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
the kind of sky
in which a small boy
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,”A different poem succeeds, however, when its vivid descriptions of a household—
she says softly.
I check my fly before
signing my name.
—From She Rings Me Up
Crusty screws—imply the similar disrepair of human relationships within.
affix the soap dish
Spack of caulk
slops a crack of tile
—From Six Nights in a Hotel
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”:
click and chime
of passing time,
like water, turns
that turns a gear
that turns a stone
that turns upon
and fine and
finer in between
our dreams like grain
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...