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Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Poetry) Paperback – February 1, 2014
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I hope as well to apprehend a stilling of the crowd,
within which stillness I might dare approach the cloud.Cairns employs a number of descriptive names for God that are in turns incisive and winsome. Many of these names pepper his idiot psalms, which are spoken through the voice of a narrator, Isaak, and appear in every section of the book. Isaak alternately cajoles, yelps, and blurts out his petitions to God, whom he calls Subtle Tweaker, Lost Cause, or Great Zookeeper. In "Idiot Psalm 6, " which could be subtitled "A Lament of the 99%," Cairns invokes the names Great Enabler and Blithely Unapparent to indict a God who too often seems indifferent to the suffering of the poor and oppressed.There is a bemusement to Cairns's invocations of this God of many names. He seems to waver between wanting an authentic, full-on encounter with his "Grea mad Architect" and holding back from it - or at least, knowing that such encounters are fleeting and provisional in this life. In "Idiot Psalm 10," Cairns closes a lovely and lush description of the created order with "O Most Secret Agent of our numberless/occasions, please also mitigate/the ache attending all of the above." The word "mitigate" lands like a thud, but with a wry twinkle. It's too much to hope that God might vanish the ache, but perhaps God can make it a little better. And "Slow Boat to Byzantium" suggests that the practice of prayer does not magically conjure up an experience of God; the discipline is an end in itself:If any of this frank, confusing clatter
has distracted you from prayer, the odds are good the whole endeavor is already somewhat compromised.
Take heart. These ups and downs will not abate,
so you will surely find in time
a practice less dependent on good fortune. Cairns's poetry is very sensual and surprisingly earthy. Though perhaps it should be no surprise. Cairns has shared in interviews that he is drawn to Orthodox worship because of its sensual, tactile elements. "...It's very bodily present - one brings himself or herself fully to the space. The air is filled with incense; the iconography is everywhere; our bodies kneel, prostrate. We kiss things. We kiss each other." Nowhere is this tactile element more in evidence than in the latter sections of the book. Section III, "My Byzantium," blends exquisite travel writing with spiritual pilgrimage as Cairns takes us into the chaos of a Thessalonian agora (marketplace) and up the holy mountain with the monks. I could smell the coffee brewing... and taste the seafood, served with beer and yogurt. Even with a spirit of slow reading and a dictionary nearby, some of Cairns's poems were simply beyond me. I was reminded of Billy Collins's warning about reading poetry, not to "tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it." Cairns's poetry is smart and intriguing enough that I was tempted to do so - to parse each line, diagram each sentence. But ultimately it was more satisfying to pursue Cairns's words the way he pursues the Holy One, the Inexhaustible, the "Forever Forgiving Forgone (sans conclusion)" - with openness and curiosity, willing to receive whatever encounter with the Holy might result. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Englewood Review of Books
In theological parlance, Cairns's poems exemplify the Orthodox apophatic tradition that begins by confessing our unknowing. They are a marvelous correction to the many ways that we trivialize the divine. Our Father in heaven is intimate, and sometimes even too close for comfort, but he is also infinite, and so beyond the fallen and finite knowledge of mere mortals. To what might we compare "The Vast and Inexplicable" when "full none of [our words] quite seem to satisfy?"
So, our speech about the divine is never exact, always provisional, insufficient for its task. Our hearts are dull, our presumptions are many, our minds are cluttered, our spiritual "impediments" almost "countless." Thus our "fraught perplexities accrue." And yet sometimes we have inklings of awareness that are no less real. The good God has "condescended, acquiesced / to grant what little I might bear." Even though we ricochet between futility and audacity, it is good and right to pray: "Being both far distant and most near, / grant in this obscurity a little light." — Dan Clendenin
In theological parlance, Cairns’s poems exemplify the Orthodox apophatic tradition that begins by confessing our unknowing. They are a marvelous correction to the many ways that we trivialize the divine. Our Father in heaven is intimate, and sometimes even too close for comfort, but he is also infinite, and so beyond the fallen and finite knowledge of mere mortals. To what might we compare “The Vast and Inexplicable” when “full none of [our words] quite seem to satisfy?”
So, our speech about the divine is never exact, always provisional, insufficient for its task. Our hearts are dull, our presumptions are many, our minds are cluttered, our spiritual “impediments” almost “countless.” Thus our “fraught perplexities accrue.” And yet sometimes we have inklings of awareness that are no less real. Even though we ricochet between futility and audacity, it is good and right to pray: “Being both far distant and most near, / grant in this obscurity a little light.” —Journey With Jesus
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He taught our seminar like he writes poetry - quiet, reflective, low-key, questioning, gently probing. We sat on a terrace in cool September sunshine, on a bluff above the Frio River. We reads poems written by others, and we read poems we had written as overnight assignments. The experience had something of the liturgical about it, with the words, the coolness, the sunshine resembling more of a worship service than a poetry seminar.
Cairns new collection of poems, "Idiot Psalms: New Poems," has that same sense of the liturgical. But it's more what I'd call "the liturgical in real life." Warm, human, with occasional flashes of dry wit, the poems range from pilgrimages and prayers to theology (Cairns is Greek Orthodox) and even complaints.
The breakfast was adequate, the fast
itself sub-par. We gluttons, having
modified our habits only somewhat
within the looming Lenten dark, failed
quite to shake our thick despair, an air
that clamped the heart, made moot the prayer.
As dim disciples having seen the light,
we supplied to it an unrelenting gloom.
Wipe your chin. I'm dying here
in Omaha, amid the flat, surrounded
by the beefy, land-locked generations,
the river, and the river's rancid shore.
O what I wouldn't give for a lifting,
cool salt breeze, a beach, a Labrador.
A relatively short poem to be sure, but the way he constructs his lines (especially the ending words) adds immediacy and a touch of humor to the poem. The gluttons are so despairing of fasting during Lent that they forget the purpose of the season and the fast and consider the flat Nebraska landscape that surrounds them.
The collection is framed by 14 "idiot psalms." They are the psalms, prayers, and requests that come from the human heart. They express doubt and faith, humor and the desire for mercy, fear and hope. Reading them is an exercise in stillness. They remind me, oddly, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Prison Poems," which I had read shortly before going to that writer's retreat in Texas. (Either that, or it might be that description of "flat, surrounded" Nebraska in the poem above.)
Some of the psalms are reminiscent of the psalms of David in the Old Testament, especially those believed written as he hid in the wilderness from Saul. Life for many us, and perhaps especially for poets, is a kind of wilderness experience, where we are surrounded by enemies, real and imagined.
Idiot Psalm 4
If I had anything approaching
a new song, surely I would sing.
If I had sufficient vision,
I would see.
If, amid the dim and dissolution
of the January day, new music
might avail to warm what passes
for my heart, surely I would weep.
My enemies are plentiful, and I
surround them, these enemies
camped firmly in my heart, what passes,
lo these dreary ages, for my heart.
O Lord of Hosts, do slay them.
Cairns has been published in numerous publications, including Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, Image and Spiritus, among others, and his poems included in several anthologies. He's received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Denise Levertov Award, and a Pushcart Prize. An English professor at the University of Missouri, he teaches Modern American Poetry, Poetry in Translation, and several poetry and non-fiction writing courses. He's been called on of the most skillful religious poets writing today.
I would add that he's also one the most skillful poets of the human heart writing today.
This simple-seeming, unfraught diction reminds me of the rough brown walls of some quartz caves that, when the lights are doused, spring to life as if the night sky had buried itself underground. The result is awe that never quite sheds the knowledge of those brown walls. As in the poem “Somnambulent” such awe is an “intermittent waking” from the walking sleep of our intellectual striving.
Wonder is chastened by the commonplace, which in turn evokes, seemingly out of nowhere, greater wonder perhaps because the failures of passion and intellect lead to prayer.
Everything in this book, from cantankerousness to intimacy, becomes prayer, a turning toward life and love and yearning for God. Prayer that is less song than invocation—open yet irascible in its need for something beyond the ordinary, and for that reason reminds me a little of Buechner’s Godric. Prayer that finds its fulfillment more in that turning toward than in any “result.”
This is, finally, a book of beauty and power and intellectual complexity—one that a carpenter and a theologian could appreciate equally and therefore a quintessentially Christian book.