William Ralph Pr, 2023
163 pp., 18.99
Philokalia, reviewed by David Wright
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable
The British poet W. H. Auden once claimed that the very essence of prayer was "to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying." If Auden is correct (more on that later), then Scott Cairns' Philokalia offers a particularly concentrated set of attentions paid, or, in Auden's terms, prayers. But these are not the selfish and contented prayers many of us recognize because we hear (and pray) them all too often. ("I just want to thank you, Lord.") Cairns' poems singe more often than they soothe.
A regular contributor to publications such as Image and The Paris Review, Cairns is especially well qualified to playfully and prayerfully provoke readers of contemporary poetry, as well as to provoke contemporary Christian audiences (who may not have encountered current poets who combine Cairns' level of theological directness and poetic skill). Both batches of readers, though, should beware of what Cairns' poems will require of them—a predilection for suspicion and mystery over certainty, and a patient ability to laugh at ourselves.
In his poems (as well as in provocative interviews and essays), Cairns contends that poetry's best function is to expose the spaces between what we know and what we have merely glimpsed or imagined: "Suppose our fixed attention / serves mostly to make evident the gap / dividing what is seen and what is here," writes Cairns in "As We See." Those suppositions and gaps, for Cairns, are where the wonders of faith (and the possibilities of language) reside: "I love the Word's ability to rise again / from chronic homiletic burial."
Along with selections from his four previous collections, Philokalia offers nearly 30 new poems that demonstrate Cairns' mature engagement with his poetic and spiritual legacy and commitments. "Philokalia" means "love of the good or beautiful," a name given to a collection of Greek Patristic texts on the Christian spiritual life. The title reflects Cairns' own commitment to Eastern Orthodoxy, a tradition that saturates the more recent poems.
However, the earlier poems from The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translations of Babel (1990), Figures for the Ghost (1994), and The Recovered Body (1998) give ample evidence that Cairns has long been developing a love of mystery coupled with a suspicion of certainty. Most striking from these early books are pieces like "Salvation," a poem that comes close to lampooning a church choir that is "an embarrassment," adding "the choir master himself / is ridiculous; the way he stands / tells everyone how short / he thinks he is." But the fun pokes only so long before it prods readers back towards introspection, forcing us to see that we might be too serious in our making fun:
If you glance over this scene
too quickly, or without enough
real humor, you might write off every other
scene it touches, every peripheral
kindness that allows such comic abuse
to abound. You might see the hilarious
faces and believe they are
the whole show; you could miss
the real act …
This real comedy, asserts the poem, is that the "annoyance of grace," and the "tired music of salvation" encompass these quirky singers, especially these. Truth and beauty hide out in unexpected places, Cairns suggests. We can't pin them down but, if we pay attention well enough, the truth might surprise us.
However, we should be careful, the poet tells us of even these truthful surprises. For Cairns, language gestures (one of his favorite terms) toward truth and beauty better than it captures. In an interview Cairns describes this poetic practice: "For me, a poem has to work the way a poem works, which is to say it must offer more than is paraphrasable. It must be susceptible to parabolic reading. If it's a poem in verse, its lines must work as lines, providing a complicating counterpoint to the sense of the syntax. Most simply put, a poem must say more than one thing. A poem must not simply be about an event; it must occasion an event of its own. "
In "The Spiteful Jesus," for example, Cairns contrasts the Jesus "whose courtesy / and kiss unsought are nonetheless / bestowed" with a Savior:
borne to us in the little boat
that first cracked rock at Plymouth
petty, plainly man-inflected
demi-god established as a club
with which our paling
generations might be beaten
to a bland consistency.
The turn on "club," inviting us to see the word's simultaneous exclusion and violence and emphasizing its importance by leaving it at a line break, shows Cairns simultaneously being playful and serious. He challenges readers' expectations of a single term, suggesting that, without knowing it, we may indeed be using Jesus in both senses (as well as others).
When Cairns turns his attention to biblical stories, most notably in "The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Saab" a group of prose poems from The Recovered Body, he may seem most challenging for evangelical readers. In "The Entrance of Sin," for example, Cairns probes the Genesis 3 account of "the beginning of our trouble." The poem contends that sin had come to the garden much earlier than Genesis suggests, appearing "in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man's hand, and he withheld it." The problem with sin, the poem discovers, is how it confronts us not suddenly but through a "developing habit of resistance." In the end, what damns the man and woman is not the mere violation of a prohibition, but their desire to withhold from one another, and from God, their own connection and joy. The poem concludes:
The beginning of loss was
this: every time some manner of beauty was
offered and declined, the subsequent isolation
each conceived was irresistible.
In his midrash, Rabbi Saab imports his own parabolic knowledge about the nature of sin and its gradual power to separate us from beauty and from others. The poem becomes the event for this recognition, not only for the poet but for the reader.
How then do such events connect to Auden's assertion about prayer? Cairns tries to answer with numerous poems about prayer, coming each time to an insight like these lines in "To Himself:"
A book I borrowed once taught me
how in the midst of attendant
prayer comes a pause when The Addressed
requires nothing else be said. Yes,
I witnessed once an emptying
like that; though what I saw was not
quite seen of course. I suspected
nonetheless a silent Other
silently regarding me as if He
still might speak, but speak as to Himself.
Poetry, then, is not quite prayer, but it can be a way of describing and discovering how we might comport ourselves when we do experience the unexpected regard of this "silent Other."
David Wright is visiting assistant professor of English at Wheaton College. His latest collection of poetry is A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003).
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Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
Philokalia: New and Selected Poems can be purchased at Amazon.com and other booksellers.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"—against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America.
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
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