Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Prayer (I)" by George Herbert / Comment by Carl Phillips

Prayer (I)

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
         God's breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

In George Herbert's entirely associative (and entirely fragmented "Prayer (I)," it is the method of association itself that provides the poem with its argument. If the poem is a list of definitions, it is more accurately a list at war with itself. On the one hand, we have a list that works inclusively - that is, the gesture is one of defining prayer and constanly elaborating on that definition, finding it necessary to keep expanding it, as if the more one understood about prayer, the more one had come to realize the impossibility of including everything that prayer apparently includes. And on the other hand, we have a list whose gesture is one of constantly rejecting, in search of exactness of definition: prayer is X; no, prayer is Y; no, keep trying. And in that final definition, "something understood," the poem seems to argue that the human impulse to define (in a sense, to impose pattern, which is what the sonnet form seeks to do here with the information that keeps threatening to overwhelm it) is itself the problem, and that prayer is finally that which is understood as itself utterly. Inclusive of everything, and like nothing that it contains.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Conversion Figure" by Mary Szybist

I spent a long time falling
toward your slender, tremulous face—

a long time slipping through stars
as they shattered, through sticky clouds
with no confetti in them.

I fell toward earth's stony colors
until they brightened, until I could see
the green and white stripes of party umbrellas
propped on your daisied lawn.

From above, you looked small
as an afterthought, something lightly brushed in.
Beside you, blush-pink plates
served up their pillowy cupcakes, and your rosy hems
swirled round your dark head—

I fell and fell.
I fell toward the pulse in your thighs,
toward the cool flamingo of your slip
fluttering past your knees—

Out of God's mouth I fell
like a piece of ripe fruit
toward your deepening shadow.

Girl on the lawn without sleeves, knees bare even of lotion,
time now to strip away everything
you try to think about yourself.

Put down your little dog.
Stop licking the cake from your fingers.

Before today, what darkness
did you let into your flesh? What stillness
did you cast into the soil?

Lift up your head.
Time to enter yourself.
Time to make your own sorrow.

Time to unbrighten and discard
even your slenderness.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The particular privacy of exile

The last thing that most human beings seem capable of trusting naturally - instinctively - is themselves, their own judgment. It is the result, I think, of an early training away from imagination, imagination being the means by which we think of a thing unconventionally - outside the norm. Those who raise us want the best for us - they hope to protect us from exclusion. But exclusion, at some level, is required in the making of the artist - art begins in the particular privacy of exile. What is required to be an authentically original artist is an inability to think conventionally - this, coupled with a for-the-most-part unconscious unawareness that one is thinking differently in the first place. It helps to have a sense of nothing left to lose, nothing therefore in the way of our speaking honestly; what's to fear, if no one is listening anyway, or if we believe that no one is listening? Or if we believe that the listeners can't hear, ever, what it is that we hear? - Carl Phillips