Paraclete Press (2015)
Though one of my college majors was Religious Studies, and though for seven rich years I taught the subject, I don’t begin to have enough theological ground beneath me to measure up to Scott Cairns’ spiritual discipline. For one thing, I am what Thoreau called an illiterate—I know neither the Hebrew, the koine Greek nor the Latin that Cairns employs in his verses. Still, there’s something in his work I understand well—the Platonic longing for wholeness, and the desire to have the spirit and body join. This is Cairns’ project—to reach for union, both in the self and with the unknowable heart of the universe. Cairns, a native of Tacoma, is a seasoned Christian—sometimes as a pilgrim, sometimes as a wrestler, sometimes as a lover. Yet one need not be a Christian to appreciate his work. I imagine that to read Cairns as a non-believer would be like reading Gary Snyder or Jane Hirschfield as a non-Buddhist, or to read an Animist, a Sufi, or a Muslim. The idea of awe, the reach for the holy, is part of the human condition. One does read serious literature best if one is willing to be changed some, to be, in a sense, converted.
In the late 1990s, Cairns made a dent in the national academic consciousness via The Chronicle of Higher Education and the now-defunct academic magazine Lingua Franca, when he was un-hired as a new faculty at Seattle Pacific University. His poem, “Interval with Erato” was judged obscene by the University’s board. “Interval” is a ticklish poem, a licking and flicking and sucking poem in which the poet gives before he gets, though the giving is pretty good. Essentially, it’s a sexual analogy poem about what a poem imparts to the reader and the writer as well. “Have you noticed,” Erato asks, “how many poets speak to themselves about themselves?” That is, of course, the standard rap on love poems and spiritual poems as well—that they’re pretty selfish, that what we say we worship is really what we want, and that we seldom pay attention or know how to pay attention to another being. Spirit and body, each is greedy. But that’s the common-place condemnation. “Interval With Erato” fights it, but in language that made some moralists angry. Anyway, Cairns went on to direct the creative writing program at the University of Missouri. Now, years later, he’s become again a part-time faculty at Seattle Pacific University. Since 1985 he has published eight volumes of poetry, an autobiography, books of essays, as well as libretti. His latest book is Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems from Paraclete Press, a publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, a Benedictine tradition ecumenical community.
Though Cairns was raised a Baptist, he’s become Syriac Orthodox, a fellowship that has bolstered his poetics. Word and flesh are pressured to join and words became objects as much as they are symbols. Incarnating a word is an serious project, a Midrashic pursuit, but to see this hope for unity worked out is worth the study. In his preface to Slow Pilgrim, Richard Howard notes how Scott Cairns’ poems show “an astonishing congruity of his religious stance to his contemporary understanding.” Howard cited the closing lines to Cairn’s poem “September 11”:
We had come to suspect what fierce demand
our translation to another land might bode,
but had not guessed He would allow our own
brief flesh to bear the flame, become the cloud.
To read Cairns requires being versed in classic verses. I am reminded of a Yale graduate school professor who said, “If you haven’t read the Bible, don’t come back to class until you have. You can’t read anything in the canon without knowing it.” And Cairns is persistently canonical, though not just from the biblical texts but also from the desert fathers, the classical Persians, and the new canon of Derrida et al. He’s often classical, that is, the poems require the attention of a long periodic sentence—the idea begins in the title and works itself to a definition, a last-line understanding. So protracted, his poems shine into the deep wells of the past or into the future. In “Inscription,” for example, there is a detailed image of a post-apocalyptic survivor who tells why—like the ancients—he has etched a glyph on an earthen wall. Cairns’ technique is Homeric and Christ-like—the poems extend the simile and the parable. Many of the collected poems read like metaphoric riddles whose answers are in the titles. Recall the beginnings of Christ’s parables, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” Cairns too presents similes—what, he asks, is analogous to the Holy Spirit, or Baptism? Satan, he posits, is the “notorious, one-time hero and major disappointment: The Bright one, chief ingrate.”
Feel as you might, pro or con, about close devotion, Cairns’ poems, even from decades back are both theologically and secularly vital. While I write, the New York Times on the table is chock-full of religious thumpers directing the daily news, bloodying up the place. Cairns writes in “A Recuperation of Sin,”
In fact, we could probably forget the idea
of sin altogether if it were it not for those
periodic eruptions one is quite likely
to picture in the papers, or on the TV—
troubling episodes in which, inexplicably,
some giddy power rises up to occasion
once more the spectacle of the innocent’s blood.
And you say yes, that happened in Beirut and Paris and San Bernardino and everywhere.
Can I talk about Facebook here? Recently dialog between poets Cairns and Robert Wrigley occurred when Wrigley posted how Richard Hugo praised the energy of shorter words. Wrigley had just done a computer search of his own manuscript to see how polysyllabic he’d been. Cairns replied to Wrigley that one should use all the tools in the poet’s kit—long and short. Cairns is often polysyllabic, and it’s what both compels and tires the reader. Imagine yourself becoming spellbound by a poetic incantation of carnality and spiritual mumbo and jumbo, especially jumbo. Cairns has called up the spirit of Mary Magdalene, for example. Well, who wouldn’t go under for that? Then imagine you’re not sure what spell you’re under—is it a salvation show’s, the Mr. Know-It-All’s, or the hoochie coochie girls’. Then you find they are in the same revival tent. In “Loves” that’s how Cairns’ Mary Magdalene sounds:
By now, you
will have learned of Magdalen, a name
recalled for having won a touch
of favor from the one we call
the son of man, and what you’ve heard
is true enough. I met him first
as, mute, he scribbled in the dust
to shame some village hypocrites
toward leaving me unbloodied,
if ill-disposed to taking up
again a prior circumstance.
And later, in the same poem, Cairns displays his spiritual and poetic desire—to have the body and spirit meld, to have the word become flesh, and at least and eventually, to have some of that joining now and all of it in the hereafter. Magadelene says:
I must have met my death,
thereafter, this subsequent life
and late disinclination toward
simple reductions in the name
of Jesus, whose image I work
daily to retain. I have kissed
his feet. I have looked long
into the trouble of his face,
and met, in that intersection,
the sacred place—where body
and spirit both abide, both yield,
in mutual obsession.
The spare power of Magadelen’s scriptural story is complicated here by Cairns’ theology, rather than intensified by crystalline imagery. If Mary Magadelene’s flesh has become word, she’s gained a few. Magadelene was fallen, and now she is clothed in syllables. Cairns’ toolbox is very full of type—and though his is a Magdalene I don’t mind reading, I believe this analytic woman might have pleased the Pharasees. As any good devotional reading winds into and out of the unknown, Cairns’ language sails in and out of abstraction.
From what little I know of Orthodox icons—Aarvo Part informs this—the icon and this poet’s pages are two dimensional surfaces with foci behind the icon’s and the pages’ plane. One looks at the flat thing and then through it, to a place the eye may focus, but through the censor’s smoke. The language can put one off if read without some spiritual desire. So I return to Cairns’ poems because I want a connection to obscurity that’s not from elliptical or language-poetry. I can put up with this incense even though Cairns’ poly-syllabics barnacle his poems. Cairns is slowly directional—he has a harbor to sail into. For him it is the enigmatic Christ’s harbor, though the Cairns’ reader’s heart can sail, in these stormy times, to other ports. Slow Pilgrim is a seeker’s book for a journey begun with all the body—the sexual, the intellectual, the spiritual body all packed up as one. And to see this journey exemplified can do the reader good.
Cairns is least convincing when his poems seem certain, as if the soul and body are finally at peace with one another, and where his work is strongest is when the eternal hopeful struggle seems worth working for, worth praying for. But one can’t be glib about it. His amusing, and sobering poem, “Possible Answers to Prayer,” acknowledges that whatever we ask for is generously re-interpreted to God. To paraphrase St. Paul, we don’t know how to pray as we aught, except the Spirit interprets our deepest moanings. Such moanings are what one overhears and perhaps what one utters while reading Slow Pilgrim.
Dan Lamberton is the Humanities Program Director at Walla Walla College. He is a Contributing Writer for Poetry Northwest.