Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms (Emerald City Books)
Resource Publications (OR), 2011
216 pp., 28.0
Peter S. Hawkins
Does the Lord Reign?
There is a long tradition in both England and America of turning the Psalter into vernacular poetry. At first the task fell to Reformation-era biblical translators hoping for accuracy in their move from Hebrew to English; then came those concerned to make the Psalms tuneful in worship (and therefore memorable to a congregation) by giving them meter and rhyme. These metrical psalms, though successful among the faithful for generations, were judged early on by discriminating poets to be mere singsong: David deserved an English lyre closer to the beauty of his own "utmost art." And so, from the late 16th century until our own day—that is, from an intensely religious age to one now deemed "post-secular"—poets on both sides of the Atlantic have taken turns rendering English versions of the Psalms according to the changing poetic modes of the times.
A selection of these efforts can be found in two collections from the mid-1990s: Laurance Wieder's 1995 The Poets' Book of Psalms and Donald Davie's 1996 The Psalms in English. Both compilers gather works that are based explicitly on a given psalm. For this reason they rely heavily on the artists of paraphrase, especially those—Philip and Mary Sidney in the 16th century, Christopher Smart in the 18th—who covered the Psalter in its 150-poem entirety, leaving no stone unturned. Neither includes, therefore, the likes of John Berryman (Eleven Addresses to the Lord, 1971) or Anne Sexton (O Ye Tongues, 1973), who wrote their own intensely personal psalm sequences without direct correspondence to this or that text but more by way of free association with the genre. Their poetry has power, but the biblical model for their efforts is easily lost in a welter of private history, sexual conflict, terror, and exaltation. They give us a David for the Seventies, and one who mirrors their own psychic dramas and disordered faith.
"Intensely personal" also describes the psalm poetry of the American 21st century, but without the same edge of hysteria or threat of incomprehensibility that compromise the work of Berryman and Sexton. What carries over from their Addresses and Tongues, however, is the freedom of self-reference and, most important, an ease with the warts-and-all freshness of the first-person. With these characteristics in mind, I think immediately of Jacqueline Osherow, Alicia Ostriker, Scott Cairns, and Mark Jarman, all of whom over the last decade have published clusters of "scattered psalms" (Osherow's sequence of 13 in Dead Men's Praise) that show an extraordinarily lively, tonally various interaction with the Psalter. Sometimes the poet strikes up a relationship with a particular psalm; sometimes with the always elusive "You" whom David addresses in both praise and in lament; and sometimes with the very task of singing the Lord's song in our strange land—the enterprise of psalm-making itself.
In this company of American psalmists, however, three poets stand out for having followed in the steps of the Sidneys and Christopher Smart by taking on the Psalter as a whole: Laurance Wieder (Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms, 2003), Brooks Haxton (Uproar: Antiphonies to the Psalms, 2004), and the poet specifically under review here, Brad Davis, Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms. Although Wieder often hews closest to the biblical originals, neither he nor the others properly offer a translation (or a metaphrase, a paraphrase, or imitation, to follow John Dryden's degrees of separation). Rather, they work their way through the Psalter poem by poem, citing it by number or by a salient verse, and then use it as a springboard for a lyric that may only be tangential to the biblical text. (This can be disappointing for those looking for a great correlation.) David, in other words, offers a trigger, a theme for "variation" (Wieder), the occasion for an "antiphonal response" (Haxton), a partner for a "conversation''(Davis) that takes off in new directions. Both Haxton and Davis do riffs on the Psalms, but whereas Haxton writes his free-ranging meditations from a perspective of ambivalence ("atheist, devotionalist, agnostic"), Davis, for all his occasional satire and rough edges, stands squarely within the Christian fold. He is a troubled believer but a passionate one nonetheless.
Brad Davis' Opening King David is the amalgam (and no doubt a revision) of four previous collections, all published by Antrim House Press in 2005-2008. Davis began the project on the first Sunday of Advent 2002 with an intention to "slow read'' his way through the Psalter, "one psalm a week, and by each week's end to draft a poem in loose conversation with the biblical text." Making good on that resolve, he then divided the 150 psalms into the five portions or "books" devised by Hebrew tradition. The poems themselves are short lyrics. Many of the early ones take the 14-line length of the sonnet (but not its traditional rhyme schemes), others turn to prose (though not happily for this reader), and the majority achieve the length and form they seem to need to make their point. The effect of the whole is indeed conversational: Davis is talking with and quite often talking back to King David, not to mention to the Lord of both poets; but he is also talking to anyone who turns his pages, in a voice that is alternately funny, brash, self-deprecating, vulnerable, faithful, troubled, "poetic"—in short, richly human. His ideal reader, he confesses in his preface, is "anyone whose relationship with 'religion' is strained or broken and who is familiar with struggle and the hope for something more or something better or more real." That desired reader strikes me, merely on the basis of these poems, very much as a version of himself.
The Psalms themselves range among topics as they carry on their own conversation with the Lord: the sheer power of the Almighty as well as his disconcerting failure to use it on desperate occasions ("How long, o Lord, how long?"); the "fullness" of the creation and its gorgeous plenitude of creatures both earthly and celestial; infatuation with an anointed monarch; the threat of "the nations," the "enemy," the "evil doers," and the cry for vengeance against them all. Then there are what Davis refers to as the Psalmist's "schizo" mood swings between joy, confidence, and gratitude, on the one hand, and despair, unworthiness, even terror, on the other. Sometimes the Psalmist changes emotional direction on a dime, and for no apparent reason (Ps. 22, for instance). Elsewhere he lingers with the reality of where he "is."
Davis covers this territory, all these moods, in his own way and according to his own circumstances. These include a wife and Brooklyn-based son, the Sitz im Leben of a Connecticut prep school (its staff, students, buildings, and landscape), the vicissitudes of American politics from Vietnam onward (he puts no trust in "princes"), nostalgia for boyhood and its friendships, the ongoing toll of mortality on absolutely everyone. He has a special gift—nurtured, perhaps, by the seraphic eye of Gerard Manley Hopkins—for seeing and giving thanks for the natural and especially winged world: "A tall reed gives slightly in the cool breeze, / nearly buckles when a redwing alights" (Ps. 18, "Seth's Pond, West Tisbury"); "I follow the crows' // jerky line of flight as they rise up / from their rain-darkened perches / and set out for nowhere in particular" (Ps. 48, "Waiting"); "the sharp chatter // of a sparrow thrilling in the lilac" (Ps. 119, "Words That Matter").
Running throughout these "loose conversations" with the Psalms is a friendship with "Bill": "believer and photographer," colleague, prayer group partner, musician, husband of a dying wife, survivor of her death, and (to the poet's surprise) married anew. Davis visits this man and his life in more than twelve of his poems. Through Bill he sees the natural world with sharper sight, experiences every good reason to lament and yet, in the midst of loss (one woman's dying of cancer standing in for every other sorrow), discovers the irrepressible urge to praise: "I say / let fly with adoration, thanks, and more, // for if this is not the deeper reason / we are here, then there is no reason" (Ps. 13, "Among Luminous Things").
Praise does not come easily to this poet. He fights "losing heart," doubt and despondency. He also stands clear of those at ease in Zion, who regularly have "a word from God" or who confide that for years there has been for them a "divine shook-foil glimmer" (Hopkins again) to every moment. Not for him: "The face of God is hidden from me" (Ps. 30, "As It Is"). Although the collection as a whole wavers like the Psalter between praise and lament, the poet we encounter is better acquainted with a starless night than with heavens that declare the glory of the Lord. Sometimes Davis plays off his own wavering against the certainty of "true believers," sometimes against the confident affirmations of the Psalter itself, as in the opening verse of Psalm 93, "The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." To this he does not say, as in response to another such affirmation, "This is bullshit" (Ps. 125, "True"). Instead, he makes a compelling case for lament based on the experience of "Roy," whose life hangs in the balance at Christmas after a surgical accident:
The Lord reigns. Yes. True. But
This happens, and now you lie there,
As lively as a lawn in December.
Me, I'm itching for a few easy answers.
Like 'God is love.' Or, 'This, too,
is your path.' Or 'The Lord giveth,
the Lord taketh away; blessed be …'
Galled and itching to lay waste all such
comfort as may be neatly swaddled
in the hasty brocade of piety. Sadness
is the province we inhabit: tundra,
endless cloud cover, precious little light.
Davis comes to Roy's hospital bed with little to give the man swaddled in sheets that may become his shroud. (There is no gold or frankincense to offer in these lines, though funereal myrrh may be in the offing.) More than one "word from the Lord" is provided by Psalm 93, as well as by the other sources Davis puts into quotation marks and glosses in notes. Yet this latter-day psalmist refuses to be so easily comforted. He is galled—bitter, filled with bile—and eager to "lay waste" piety's brocade, that is, the "cover" of easy answers that fail miserably even when a faithful man discovers them in Scripture or in his church community. He knows, at least in this situation, that there is only tundra, not green pastures or still waters; a glimmer of light, perhaps, but "precious little."
If Davis often goes against the grain of the Psalter's predominantly celebratory confidence—turns biblical praise into 21st-century lament—it is, I think, because in our time certain affirmations need to be argued with, contested, if their truth is to be discovered. Does the Lord reign? Is the earth so firmly established that "it cannot be moved"? If so, then, as Brad Davis seems to say, let's be bold and gather up the chaff as well as wheat; the "No" as well as the "Yes" (along with a generous helping of "Maybe"); the evidence "against" as well as "for," so that like David, we can end our book of songs with a heart-felt if sometimes heart-broken "Praise God" (Ps. 150, "Shonda-La"). In his refusal of easy comfort, the poet gives readers of this 150-poem-long conversation honest cause to rejoice.
Peter S. Hawkins is professor of religion and literature at Yale University. He is the author of Dante's Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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