The Red River of Jesus’s Blood
The truth is that it’s almost always easier for a poet to talk about anything—or nothing—so long as the tone is engaging, witty, and avoids—as the old saw goes—certain kinds of politics—usually of a conservative cast—or religion, unless it be of a new age or vaguely Eastern kind. In fact it’s far more acceptable in the contemporary poem to use an openly blasphemous frame of mind than to approach the mystery at the heart of Christianity in anything like a serious frame of mind. You can mock Christianity, or you can approach the poem from the frame of mind that shows you’ve escaped the ravages of Christianity, but it will be much harder to speak from the perspective of someone drawn to the Mystery.
And by serious I do not mean somber or poetry without a sense of humor or serious play. That element, I think, is necessary for any poem to work. But it’s as if the Christian poet by his or very nature had some design on you, other than that of writing a poem that taught the poet—and therefore the reader—something he or she had no other way of understanding until the actual writing of the poem itself revealed it.
There’s a passage in Flannery O’Connor’s “The River” that speaks to this very issue. A young boy—four or five—named Harry has been brought down to a river by his zealous babysitter to hear the Reverend Bevel Summers preach on a Sunday morning and—as events turn out—to be baptized by the preacher in that same sun-glinting, red-muddy river and to pray for the boy’s mother, who is ill—the boy tells the preacher—with a hangover. There’s something comic about the whole scene and about the way O’Connor presents it. A nineteen-year-old preacher in rolled-up khaki trousers, standing ten feet out in the river. He’s nondescript, really: tall, thin, with “light-colored hair…cut in sideburns that curved into the hollows of his cheeks. His face was all bone and red light reflected from the river….He was singing in a high twangy voice, above the singing on the bank, and he kept his hands behind him and his head tilted back.” A rube, we think, a country hick, about whom Mr. Paradise—the man with the tumor over his ear who mocks the whole scene, but keeps coming back, in spite of himself, to witness it—shouts to the crowd: “Pass the hat and give this kid his money. That’s what he’s here for.”
But there’s no mocking what the preacher has to say. His voice “grew soft and musical,” O’Connor writers, as he proclaims the message to this group of hillbillies and misfits, the poor and the powerless, like the woman who has brought the boy here to be baptized, a woman with a husband in the hospital and on permanent disability, who works the nightshift and weekends to keep three sullen boys and a teenage girl fed and housed. “Listen to what I got to say, you people!,” this modern John the Baptist says. Christ is the River of Life and the River of Love, he says, and the muddy red river symbolizes the red river of Jesus’s Blood.
And then the sheer, mesmerizing poetry of the preacher’s witness, a riff off the vision of Ezekiel, who sang of seeing the river flowing eastward from the Temple itself, growing larger and deeper, and teeming with life:
All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a river full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.
Let this episode serve as parable for the problems involved in our time in getting poetry of a sacramental order a viable hearing. A Catholic writer writing about a hillbilly preacher who promises nothing, really, except what you can bring to the river, the river of faith, speaking in a language that echoes the prophets and John the Baptist. I suppose it is why I find myself returning so often to O’Connor, who in her short life managed to capture the complex dualities inherent in our world, a duality caught in the ironies and slipperiness of our language, to say nothing of our inability (or refusal) to pay attention to the other.
When I was poetry editor of America, I received well over a thousand poetry submissions a year, even though I could publish only twelve of those, and one of those was for a money prize. I got to see a lot of well-meaning poems, many by ministers and clergy and religious, as well as others. The ages ranged from the junior high student to the octogenarian. Often as not, there was a well-developed religious sensibility present in the poetry, but the poetry itself was lacking. Not the verse forms, for often these are present. What’s missing is the thing that makes the poem live not only as a poem, but as a felt expression of a religious sensibility, where the spiritual dimension and the words come together into a surprising and harmonious whole.
Of course that’s true in part because good poetry is hard enough to come by. But then to find this other quality, this further dimension: that’s far rarer still. Perhaps that is at it should be. This is not the age of Dante, a poet who could rely on the Scholastic synthesis formulated by Aquinas, who brought together not only the best of Aristotelian thought, but Patristics and Maimonides and Averroes—in short a synthesis of classical, Jewish, Muslim and Christian thought. Nor is this a Metaphysical Age, which generated poets like Donne, Herbert, Crashaw and Vaughan.
You start—as you always have to start with poetry—with the poem itself. Hopkins and to a lesser degree Eliot and Jones and W.H. Auden apart, poetry has to take into account the brilliant work of poets for whom the various formulations of Judaism and Christianity were problematic at best, for in truth Christianity for Yeats and Frost and Pound and Stevens and Williams and Hart Crane was something to be plundered, something which acted as an irritant of sorts. Something to be used where its stories or symbols could be employed in building a new temple, if you will.
Harold Bloom speaks of the Paterian esthetic, often crossed with the nay-saying of a Nietzsche. Cross those figures with the Romantic tradition—Blake and Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats—and in some instances even the cool comic detachment of a Byron—and you come up with a fascinating potpourri of influences.
I mention these sources because when I come upon William Carlos Williams or Robert Lowell (or even Emily Dickinson) invoking the Blessed Mother, I look twice to see with what tone she is invoked. Or Wallace Stevens speaking of the hero in his time in terms which all but name the presence of Christ.
Still, it’s a strategy—this indirect darting, this almost subliminal invocation which vanishes even as you try to fix it—which may in fact be one of the most successful poetic strategies of our time. I have called it—in another context—a kind of grasshopper transcendency: the momentary lift or epiphany or spot of time, in which something is for a moment glimpsed, like subatomic motes, if you will, before it disappears. And it is as much a question of the shifts in syntax, or the ambiguous modifier or pronoun or the poem ending with a question rather than a statement which allows for these luminous fulgurations, these brief glimpses in and out of time. Wallace Stevens is a good example of the sort of thing I’m talking about here. Take a late poem from Transport to Summer, a poem with the arresting title, “The Good Man Has No Shape,” and watch as Stevens fills in the image of Jesus of Nazareth between the lines, without ever naming him:
Through centuries he lived in poverty,
God only was his only elegance.
Then generation by generation he grew
Stronger and freer, a little better off.
He lived each life because, if it was bad,
He said a good life would be possible.
At last the good life came, good sleep, bright fruit,
And Lazarus betrayed him to the rest,
Who killed him, sticking feathers in his flesh
To mock him. They placed with him in his grave
Sour wine to warm him, an empty book to read,
And over it they set a jagged sign,
Epitaphium to his death, which read,
The Good Man Has No Shape, as if they knew.
In fourteen lines, made up of seven unrhymed couplets, Stevens has re-created a mythology of Jesus as the essential good man, a mythology in which the good man is killed by being stuck with feathers as a mockery of Jesus’s divinity. Even Lazarus betrays Jesus in Stevens’ retelling, because Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb—or so Lazarus reports in this retelling. And this is something that the authorities—as in John’s Gospel—cannot allow. In Stevens’ retelling, Jesus preaches the good life, which for Stevens consists of “good sleep” and “bright fruit.” But Jesus also promises that—even if one’s life turns out badly, there remains the possibility that things might have been different. After the mob kills Jesus they place the sign—not above his head on the cross, but over his grave. Finally, Stevens rewrites the sign above Jesus’ head. Not Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, now, the sign placed there by the Roman authorities to mock not only Jesus but the Jewish people in general, but rather the general taunt against humanity itself that indeed The Good Man Has No Shape. The Good Man, in other words is and must remain an ideal, a fabrication, a lie, the underlying reading being that there never has been any such thing as a Good Man. And then, just as you think the poem is over, Stevens destabilizes everything he has said by adding the closing qualifier, “as if they knew.”
Stevens’ linguistic strategy speaks to an age given to ambivalence and uncertainty. As he grew older, he tended to hover somewhere in between, with an “And yet…and yet…and yet,” or an “as if,” which made every certainty which followed that “as if” conditioned upon it, like a lawyer inserting qualifications and exceptions in a contract which could look as if it were offering you the world, even as it left you, finally, empty-handed of everything but a glittering promise. The sort of thing you get every day—really—in ads that are sent in your general direction, and which seem to promise those on either side of the belief equation something for their time and trouble.
Much modern and contemporary poetry, approaching the question of belief, follows this pattern, often substituting itself in place of that belief, not as an addition but as something like a momentarily satisfying esthetic response, as if the poem were a self-enclosed artifact or urn, and the linguistic and formal resolution something to quiet the churning, dissatisfied mind.
The question remains, then: is that enough to satisfy the soul? Is it?