How to write so that the poem is as close as possible to silence? Zen—to play on the lute without strings.
—Anna Kamienska, trans. Clare Cavanagh
After nearly 7 years of reading poetry theologically and theology poetically, I still can’t say exactly what the two — poetry, theology — have to do with each other, except that they are both forms of language that point to the very horizons of language, beyond which I imagine an Ultimate Meaning that is formless, perfect and inarticulable. And so instead of God, I write ( ).
From Exodus 20:1-17
20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
The trouble and tension and beauty: it is only within form, imperfection and speech/text that I can glimpse any meaning at all. I have to SAY that some things are ineffable. And if I refuse to speak or write — often out of a misguided fidelity to perfect alignment between what I mean and what I say/ write — the ineffability of Ultimate Meanings threatens to annihilate my ego entirely, and with it, a certain relational capacity, relating and comparing the form and the formless, the imperfect and the perfect, the poem and silence.
From 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
1:25 For ( )’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and ( )’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
I don’t know what kind of devotion is required to “play on the lute without strings.” On a cycle ride today, with a wall to my left and a canal to my right, I set myself the challenge of counting ten pedal strokes with my eyes closed (only where the way was straight, where there were no oncoming pedestrians or cyclists; also, I knew I could focus on keeping the handlebars steady). I never got past five strokes; my eyes opened automatically. It seems the same with my need for language. But it’s this need that reinforces a faith in the silence I don’t manage to keep.
Naturally, I get excited by poets who ask similar questions and theologians who see poetry’s theological mode. I’m sure I’ve shared Anna Kamienska’s “A Prayer That Will Be Answered” before (I first heard it in a sermon Christian Wiman gave in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School); more recently, I’ve spent time with her notebooks (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, and published in Poetry magazine, not surprisingly, during Wiman’s editorship).
Published notebooks are among my favorite forms of writing. It is maybe foolish to consider them more honest than more public forms of writing. Notebooks are rehearsal and performance at the same time. They are so interesting to me because they seem less concerned with anonymous audiences, and more concerned with the intimate audience of ( ), even, and sometimes most fervently, in the writings of people who don’t consider themselves religious.
From Psalm 19
19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O ( ), my rock and my redeemer.
But Anna Kamienska did think of herself and was religious, and thought quite a bit about prayer and also a lot about Jesus. She wrote in her notebooks:
“When I think about Christ, I’m always stopped short by a clause in parentheses: he was fully human (except for sin). That ‘except for sin’ rubs me the wrong way. I remember all Christ’s moments of weakness in the Gospels. Maybe something almost like sin lurks in those dark moments? Like the slightly overwrought anger when he drives the moneylenders from the temple? Sometimes I’d like to have Christ as a brother in sin, not just in suffering. Although I know his being sinless was the sign of his divinity.”
From John 2:13-22
2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
I know the overturning of the tables in the temple story has a moral edge — don’t defile houses of prayer with commerce — and I know it’s important to talk about righteous anger. But I like that she says “overwrought anger,” and that she poses the question of sin/sinlessness. Poses, and leaves it open (her audience is intimate, and there is no need to resolve the question).
The scripture lines are from the lectionary for this week.
Coffee Hour is a lightly-facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (today it is AnnaKamienska), but the video conference link is always the same: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021