At Easter, Poetry Helps Us Remember
Poetry is language made material.
It presents us with objects and the world, yes, that is part of its materiality, but it also – and perhaps fundamentally – makes our very language into a thing, rather than simply a medium. Like remembering that you exist in time, and becoming aware of your temporality, poetry takes what we are always immersed in and says, Remember; become aware.
Thus it is like all art a meditative practice. You must slow down, quiet yourself, and actively receive – a strange gesture, perhaps paradoxical, but one that is, if nothing else, prayer. And so for Holy Week, I want to present four (mostly) contemporary poems that can direct meditation without limiting it, that can engage prayer in our physical existence and the existence of the Resurrection as event, that can slow one down, that can build sensual memory of the acts we do and life we live in constant remembrance of it, of Him.
jesus knew by Nick Flynn
My first selection may seem a little off, and for non-poetry readers, might perhaps confirm assumptions already held: contemporary poetry is vulgar and heretical. But I hope you give it a chance, regardless. jesus knew is, simply enough, a poem about Jesus the human. Growing up in a rather traditional setting, I understood Jesus as all-man and all-God, which is to say, I didn't understand that at all. I simply heard it. But while a good many sermons focused on the latter-half, the all-God part, not many turned on Jesus as a man, as a breathing, eating, sweating, defecating, sleeping human. As my faith reflected on my pursuits in art, and my pursuits reflected on my faith, I began to wonder why, and how we could understand the despair in Gethsemane, the strength of the silent trial, and the horror of the Passion without the grotesque reality of a fleshy human (not all ages divorced the spiritual from the material as ours does: one example of which is in Matthias Grünewald's Crucifixion paintings from the 16th Century). So, I humbly submit Nick Flynn's poem of a tragically human Jesus as the first piece of meditation, the first orientation toward a Holy Week perspective.
The Airy Christ by Stevie Smith
The Airy Christ is less a Passion poem and more a ministry poem, less a poem structured around the event and more one that deals with the person, the Person. How better to describe the Human who was both least and most human, the God who came as no god might, than as airy, as aloof, as singing. What I love about Smith's Jesus is that the poem inhabits this strangeness, this alienness, through the imperfect meter and the fluid, yet just so slightly askew, rhymes. Blazing east and airy Christ compose a brilliant off-rhyme, naturally twinning the concepts so that the airy Christ is also the blazing Christ – all the more from the strained, inherently poeticized language of the opener. As the rest of the poem continues to set this Christ apart, spilling out from the figure are his teachings and their historical, inevitable perversions, framed as Christ's singing and the failure to properly listen: "Deaf men will pretend sometimes they hear the song, the words." Through singing, Smith reminds us that Jesus speaks differently, does not give us the opportunity – should we truly hear – to co-opt Him for our purposes. Like a song, they exist in beauty insofar as they relate to themselves. They are not extractable.
Descending Theology: The Resurrection by Mary Karr
For the Event itself, I chose a poem with the least formal adornment. Poetry is often well-served by making grand the mundane, but how does it handle the already grand? By instilling an atmosphere, by ruminating on the niches, by employing a lexicon of estrangement and familiarity that overrides the common collection such grandeur becomes associated with. Karr does all of this in her proto-sonnet. The crucifixion is depicted as filling all of the cosmos with the "far star points of his pinned extremities" before the eye moves dangerously close, possessing the emptiness of the moment after death, "lonely in that void even for pain ... he ached for two hands made of meat." The wholly bodily Christ, but perceived from both within the body and outside of it. And then, the resurrection, when "the stone fist / of his heart began to bang / on the stiff chest's door." When a poem is so minutely perfect as this one, when ever word is the exactly right one and ever line a diamond fragment, it becomes hard to not simply repeat the entire poem! Can you tell? I will leave the sonnet's turn – which occurs in the last word of the first stanza – and it's breathtaking couplet for you, but rivering. Rivering.
Supernatural Love by Gjertrud Schnackenberg
A confession: this has long been in the pantheon of my favorite poems. It has a lot against it: a pretty strict iambic pentameter, rhymed triplets (often perfect rhymes), a child narrator. All potential gimmicks in the contemporary purview of poetry, but here handled with the utmost deft, precision, and sensitivity. Rather than a parlor trick, the poem becomes a candelabra, a chandelier, a masterpiece. All poems should be read aloud, at some point in their being-read, but this especially: embodied in a voice, the narrative of the story gains an unexpected pace and clarity that then whisks quickly into the uptick of emotion. From a philological analysis of carnation and a young child innocuously sewing rises a metaphor of such mimetic force it leaves one heady – that is my warning. We the reader, we in no time at all become the little girl, listening to the words, sewing the words, piercing – and then, at once, the Word becomes Flesh, the words become our flesh, the Word that became Flesh that became Pierced, the Substitute, the Sacrifice, and the flowers.
Tim DeMay is a graduate student at the University of Maryland where he is pursuing a master's degree in fine arts (poetry.) You can read more of Tim's work on his website, The Town of Spring Once Again.