Tag Archives: Scott Cairns

Many Stories, One World

YHWH’s Image

With this clay He began to coat His shins,
cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this
layering, and, when He had been wholly
interred, He parted the clay at His side, and
retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself
to wander in what remained of that early
morning mist.
—Scott Cairns

I wrote a little tepidly about Scott Cairns’s collection “Recovered Body” a little while back. Nevertheless, I find that “YHWH’s Image”–partially quoted above– has been sticking with me, as poems somehow seem to do. I keep coming back to that image of the creation, so different and yet so right, as if Cairns has shown me both the truth of human intimacy with God and our ache at God’s absence.

I may have been thinking about this a bit since I’m leading a discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 at my church this Sunday. No Biblical scholar am I, but I’ve been mulling over the endless troubling that goes on about the two different accounts of creation, as if this somehow counted against the truth of the Biblical passages. “Those silly ancient Hebrews,”  we seems to say, “Didn’t they realize they put two completely different stories right next to each other.”  A modern chauvinism.  As it happens, I also read this week a very fine essay in manuscript by my colleague at Messiah College, Brian Smith, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, who points out that there’s also a creation story in the first part of Proverbs that is very different from the first of Genesis, proclaiming the primacy of Wisdom. And, of course, I  realized that there’s another creation story in the first chapter of John, where in the beginning we have not God brooding over the deep, but the Word with and as God. I’m sure if I knew my Bible better a number of other creation stories might spring to mind–I’ve come to doubt there are only four. And yet even with so many, Scott Cairns’s poem got me thinking about some truth about the creation story that is genuinely new but somehow consistent with all the others and with the teachings that I’ve received about God’s relationship to the world as creator and redeemer.

And yet we worry and fret that there are two stories and they don’t match up.

What if it is the case that the creation of the world out of nothing is so beyond our imagining, that getting the one right story isn’t the point. What if it is the case that the great rupture of creation is so beyond our comprehension that we are set to storytelling, not so we could capture the single truth of what happened, but so we could bear testimony to its mystery.

Testimony, it seems to me, is an important word because it bears witness to a given fact and is in some way accepted as testimony only to the extent that it both repeats what everyone already knows, but in a way that bears an individual stamp.  The truthtelling that is testimony is both repetitive and unique, as we are urged on to bear witness to the facts of a known or remembered world.   The recent rehearsals of oral histories about 9/11 is this kind of record. All of them sound familiar, and yet all of them are unique and different, bearing some new witness to the day a world changed for those who were there. Scott Cairns’s poem strikes me this way. Right and consistent with everything I think I have heard and believed, but bearing its own stamp, its own word, never heard before, such that I know God the Creator in some new may.

For many poststructualists/postmodernists, the multiplicity of stories about events in the world gives credence to the notion of incommensurable realities–in some sense we make the world through our speaking about it.  And so there is no world to be spoken about, instead a plethora of worlds carried and clashing on the wings of our words. In this view, the notion of one world or a singular truth is oppressive, squashing down our human ingenuity.

But what if it were the case that the one act of creation created a world so singular and beyond our knowing that we are called upon to bear testimony to that one world through our own stories?  The one great rupture of creation calls into being our own acts of creation out of testimony to an event we affirm but cannot encompass.  If this were the case, then I would stop worrying about the fact that there were two or three or four or more stories about creation in the Bible. I might be surprised that there weren’t more.

Wouldn’t something as startling and unprecedented as a world need more than one story?

Scott Cairns: Recovered Body

Recovered BodyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admired these poems more than I loved them. Though that may say more about me than about the poems. Believing with the Konstanz school that the work of art is an event occurring only when an object is encountered, reviewers should probably preface what they have to say with self-critique, admitting that, after all, every act of criticism is disguised autobiography, or at least disguised desire. (How else to account for the different ways a person takes a book in the course of a life—thrilled in youth and bemused or embarrassed in middle age that we took the time once to be enthused.) In that spirit I should say that I was tired when I read these poems, and more tired when I read through a second time. It also likely didn’t help matters that I had read through Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” earlier this week, a collection that left me feeling shaken and undone, as if in counting her losses she had fingered the raw places left by mine. Finally, it may be that in the recesses of my brain I’m carrying the memory of Cairns visit to Messiah College several years ago, delivering a reading that I felt was both profound and down to earth, deeply serious while also good-humoured.

By comparison, these poems seemed to me this time around more accomplished than moving, as if written while attending more to other poems than to readers. This is not to say that there’s not a lot to admire or that there is not a great deal of accomplishment. Indeed, it a poet’s great advantage that if even half a dozen poems that strike the anvil, an entire collection will have been worth the reading. By comparison, fifty good pages in a novel otherwise full of dreck leave me infuriated that the promise in those pages had been such a tease. Cairns is at his best in taking the old, old stories and finding the new thing. His curiosity presses the “Why?” and “What if?” Why, after all, did Lot’s wife look back. Could it have been something like compassion? And, if we were truthful with ourselves, won’t we admit that we are, in the lurid eye of our imaginations, looking back too at smoldering Sodom? What if Jacob slew Isaac after all, the story of rams and angel a good tale to give God a little cover. Perhaps the most moving of these to me was his rendering of Joseph, long after the successes of his life and the moral triumphs of his forgiving spirit, never quite forgetting the terror of that adolescent grave he’d been assigned by his brothers:

“And in succeeding years, through their provocative turns of fortune—false accusations, a little stretch in prison, a developing facility with dreams—Joseph came gradually into his own, famously forgave his own, pretty much had the last laugh, save when, always as late in the day as he could manage, he gave in to sleep and to the return of that blue expanse, before which all accretion—accomplishment, embellishment, all likely interpretations—would drop away as he found himself again in the hollow of that well, naked, stunned, his every power spinning as he lay, and looked, and swam.”

This is old hat defamiliarization. But it is also really good stuff. How absolutely true it must be, or at least could have been, about Joseph. We want triumph without memory, and redemption without regrets. This and other poems like it tear Biblical and historical figures out of the thick mask of their necessary reputations, places where, as Cairns puts it in another poem, they are “all but veiled by chiaroscuro and the prominence.”

All of this is praise, and it may say something that I find myself admiring, and even liking, these poems the more I write about them in this review, writing, after all, an act of thought, an exercise of the imagination on the idea of poetry and literature and these poems and this literature. But in the reading I found all this just a little distancing, as if the manner of these poems was too far from my need. While the technology of the poetry was to make remote figures human for me again, to, as the title of the collection suggestion suggests, give testimony to the “recovered body,” the poems’ achievements seemed primarily intellectual or literary or interpretive, rather than visceral. Someone said they wanted poetry that made them feel as if the top of their heads had been taken off, and I tend to agree. But again, perhaps that only speaks to my own needs, my own place, my own embodiment, the facts of my father’s gradual descent in to dementia and my mother’s grappling with depression, that I miss and worry anxiously about my daughter away at school, or fret and feel tired already at the sense that the past summer never actually began and now it is all but ended. So perhaps it is not surprising that the poem I liked the most in the collection was also clearly the most lyric and personal. The one in which Cairns, remembering the death of his father, struck me as a person more than an imagination:

As we met around him
That last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.

This poem–unlike the others, all occupying their own form of goodness–made me say Yes.

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