Poetry is a search for meaning. Until relatively recently, that has meant a search for God. A distinctly Christian poetics began with the New Testament, notably in the epistles of Paul, and went on to include, among countless others, Donne, Milton, Blake and Hopkins. But by the middle of the 20th century, a century of increasing agnosticism, fewer Western poets mediated their search for meaning through religion. With few exceptions, serious poets stopped writing directly to or about God.
Enter Mark Jarman, Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt and the author of nine books of poetry, including the recently released Epistles, a collection of 30 prose poems based loosely on the epistles of St. Paul. Jarman is almost a singular figure in the world of serious poetry. When, in 1997, he released his astonishingly beautiful and heartbreaking sixth book, Questions for Ecclesiastes, the world of high poetry was initially taken aback. A colleague of Jarman, the poet Kate Daniels, said, “It took a great deal of courage as an American poet of his stature, known for his intellectual erudition and learned mind, to have all of a sudden started writing poems to God.”
After the initial shock, however, critics responded. Questions for Ecclesiastes was honored with one of poetry’s most distinguished honors, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, which is awarded by the Academy of American Poets to the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States. Jarman followed that collection with Unholy Sonnets, a lyrical exploration of belief in the spirit of John Donne; and To the Green Man, which examined both the consoling and enigmatic qualities of religious faith.
Jarman is no C.S. Lewis, leading converts to the fold. Epistles is interested in the paradoxes of faith. The closer a believer tries to get to God, according to Jarman, the farther away God can seem. The only way to enact communion with God is through prayer, but prayer is always answered by silence. The more prayer, the more silence. In “As the couple turns toward each other,” for example, prayers are sent off into the dark like beams from flashlights, only to bounce off other prayers, so that all prayers end up “scattered,” “dispersed,” and “deflect[ing] each other toward different ends.” According to the speaker in this poem, “The one to whom he prayed answered with silence. Clasped by a hand of silence, at the end of an arm of silence, it was a cup of silence, holding the countless counted beads of his unanswered answered prayer.” Here, silence itself is paradoxical, a non-response enacted as a hand held out, an offering of comfort.
And what if silence is what we’re all really praying for, ultimately? At the end of the poem, Jarman delivers the kind of devastatingly ambivalent finish he’s known for: “And yet if everything prayed one prayer, it would have to be heard, wouldn’t it? Perhaps that prayer is Let me be. That prayer is heard.” Let me be can be read as Allow me to live, or Leave me alone. Or, in a world of spiritual paradox, it can be read as both at once, highlighting a crucial anxiety of Christian faith: Once we are joined with God, we can no longer live among the ones we love. Perhaps our prayers, then, are really attempts to distance ourselves from God, prayers for heavenly silence? Jarman, as is his custom, offers no answers, only the simultaneously consoling and terrifying, “That prayer is heard.” It’s possible an answered prayer is simply the bodily existence that allows for prayer itself.
The other major concern of Epistles is the connection between body and soul, matter and spirit. In “The Body on Fire, the Soul in Flight,” an essay in his 2002 book Body and Soul, Jarman writes, “We cannot know the soul without the body. … [T]his radiant node of the senses is where God is apprehended, if one is looking for God, and where the soul, which connects us to God, takes shape in the imagination.” Epistles is a veritable enactment of that conviction. The beginning of “If I were Paul,” the book’s opening poem, sets the tone for the whole collection:
Consider how you were made.
Consider the loving geometry that sketched your bones, the passionate symmetry that sewed flesh to your skeleton, and the cloudy zenith whence your soul descended in shimmering rivulets across pure granite to pour as a single braided stream into the skull’s cap.
But that tone is complicated by the paradoxes being played out in the bodies and souls of ordinary lives. Real faith, his poems demonstrate, is not easy; it demands grappling with enormous ironies. The same “loving geometry” and “passionate symmetry” that blesses the flesh can also be distant and unavailable. In a passage from “History,” for example, God is both painfully absent and blissfully present:
What are you thinking now about eternal life? That it will be life eternally. And the bloody news at breakfast will continue. And the free floating anxiety will continue. And the cosmic indifference will continue. But so will nakedness with my wife, black coffee in the morning, being read Dickens by my daughter before bedtime.
If Epistles is any indication, Jarman is hardly finished with his examinations and explorations of faith. In the secular world of high poetry, the directness of his inquiry can seem unsettling. But few major poets have been concerned with pleasing the establishment. And Jarman is a major poet.
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