In 2010, I attended a writer’s conference at Laity Lodge, in the Texas Hill Country about 90 minutes or so west of San Antonio. I had signed up for the poetry seminar taught by Scott Cairns, a professor at the University of Missouri, which is about 90 or so minutes west of where I live in St. Louis. I had previously read his A Short Trip to the Edge, an account of his pilgrimages to Mount Athos (Cairns in Greek orthodox), and Compassion of Affection: Poems New and Selected.
I was looking forward to the seminar; I was not disappointed (and I loved Laity Lodge). Twelve of us spent two days doing something I’d never heard of – using poetry to explicate Scripture.
That’s the idea, or one of the ideas, behind Recovered Body: Poems, published by Cairns in 2003. Cairns uses poetry to explicate Scripture, and more than that, to explore poetry as a kind of Biblical enterprise. And it’s utterly fascinating.
The poems are divided into three sections.
The first, “Deep Below Our Violences,” covers a range topics – a line from a Wallace Stevens poem, the Old Masters’ paintings, archaeology, a rather erotic discussion between the poet and his muse Erato, the death of a father. The poems are characteristically Cairns, and I can hear his deep, slow voice now that I heard in Texas on a windblown patio near the Frio River. And I can hear that characteristic wonder of life. Here’s “Regarding the Body:”
I too was a decade coming to terms
with how abruptly my father had died.
And I’m still lying about it. His death
was surely as incremental, slow-paced
as any, and certainly as any
I’d witnessed. Still, as we met around him
that last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.
In the second section, “The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab,” the reader is given an introductory warning about the rabbi, who has often been accused of “apostasy, blasphemy, manic-depression, drunkenness, bad manners. He has been praised for his compassion, revered—if not much liked—for his eager upbraiding of the pious.”
Then you read the rabbi’s “commentaries” on the image of God, sin, Lot’s wife, the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Joseph thrown into the well and then sold, the death of Moses, Solomon and his Song, Jephthah’s terrible vow, Jonah’s imprisonment, and the exile. Yes, those accusations against the rabbi have validity, but his commentaries force the reader to confront and wrestle with the meanings of the Biblical texts being commented upon.
And I wonder if I didn’t hear a little of that rabbi down in Texas, too.
The third section of poems, “Supplications,” is devoted to New Testament themes – Christ in Gethsemane, the thief himself crucified who ridiculed Jesus on the cross, a beautiful poem about Mary Magdalene, and Jesus descending into hell, among others. The poem about Mary Magdalene, entitled “Loves” is simple and strong, and a memory, declaration and hymn all at once. Cairns subtitles it “Magdalene’s Epistle,” and it is written as a kind of deep, thoughtful and profound letter.
Recovered Body is a strong collection. Many of the poems were previously published by Chariton Review, Image, The Paris Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other publications and two anthologies. The poems, individually and collectively, provide a different way to look at both Scripture and poetry, as text and a way to understand text, and how to apply that text and understanding to life.