Uncommon Prayer . . . from page 1
As does the subject of many of the poems, Uncommon Prayer divides into three parts—“Book of Hours,” “Uncommon Prayers,” and “Siege Psalter.” The first loosely follows the pattern of medieval “books of hours”—illuminated manuscripts collecting prayers, psalms, scripture, and other devotional texts arranged for reading, or praying, at prescribed times of the day: Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Vespers, None, and Compline. Books of Hours were designed to help the laity align their lives more closely with the devotional lives of monks and nuns in the monasteries. Johnson’s version, illuminated with painterly imagery and attuned to Johnson’s pitch-perfect ear, sometimes follows and sometimes playfully wrenches awry the traditional devotional pattern.
The opening poem, “Matins For the Last Frost,” begins with an echo of Dickinson, “Patient in their dark hibernacle / wait the twinned lobes of the tulip bulb / hanging like a semicolon.” That last phrase signals the ways in which the words and things of this book will enact their resurrections back and forth into each other, incarnating and dis-incarnating, with the flip of a coin or the pull of the arm of a slot machine inferred in the poem “Blanks”. While the brave tulips of “Matins” enact their difficult, Roethkean resurrections through the soil, the poem itself blossoms: “Somewhere on the other side of town / some bells begin to raise their brazen; / everything is about to change—”
The promise and seriousness of this poem, reminiscent of Rilke, is playfully countered in others such as “Nonesuch,” whose title puns on the devotional hour, “None.” “Nonesuch” complains to the Deity. The speaker tells God that He shall not be the inspiration and “I” the mere page; not He the harrow and I the fallow field:
Not you the piston whose combusted thrust
shoves the rod that drives my crankshaft.
Not I the vehicle, not I the sign
and you the substance, you the blessed body
absent and sublime and I your accident.
As in Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” Johnson’s linguistic play never lessens but only reinforces the urgency of the speaker’s lament.
Along with such overtly religious poems are many striking lyrics exploring the contours of gain and loss in human relationships. One of the finest is “Crepuscular,” which I first read in The New Yorker. After a series of gloomy observations on an urban autumn sundown, the poem ends: “The ignition jump of a car / heading anywhere, taillights red / as the rubber stamp on a divorce decree, / its diminishing rev a metaphor / for the failure of metaphor. The car / is a car leaving, and then left.”
This section concludes with “A Benediction: On the Tulpenwoede of Seventeenth-Century Holland.” Here, we return to the tulip image with which the section began, in this poem blossoming into an account of the mania that seized Holland in the seventeenth-century, when a single tulip like the “Viceroy” might fetch ten times what an ordinary laborer could make in a year’s wages. The concluding lines ring one of the themes of the whole collection—Wallace Stevens’s theme and Buddhism’s central lesson—that “Death is the mother of beauty,” or, more precisely here, that loss and the risk of losing are the source of longing: “believing / that by loving I could hold what I loved, / forgetting that I loved because I couldn’t.”
More uncommon pleasures await us in “Uncommon Prayers,” Part II. Here, Johnson offers a series of inventive dramatic monologues spoken by various objects, some of which speak the ventriloquized voice of God. In these poems, God does the praying through the mouths of ordinary objects, the bug-zapper, the wrecking ball, the catapult, the Lord God Bird. In “The Bug-Zapper,” one of my favorites, God calls the faithful to come and be saved, to be annihilated in glory, in a bright apotheosis. The Bug-Zapper God opens with the invitation, “Come, flame-moth. Come feathered thornwing.” The moth seeking the candle flame is a famous image of religious mysticism, East and West—the soul seeking its annihilation in Union with the Divine. Here, God concludes his seductive prayer to us moths: “My brief lovelies, / Let us spark while we can. I feel a hard rain coming on.”
Another favorite is “Wasp,” which seems a homage to Plath and her bee poems. “My name is Legion, and my sisters’ name / is Legion.” The wasps make a din that is “communion.” And, “Now as the evening star // Nests like a queen, we swarm through the vestibule / Into the vault, and whisper. The paper // Whispers back. It is our stay against the wide, / Illegible night. It is our book of common prayer.” Like the “Om” of Hinduism, or the Stoic/Christian Logos, to the wasp this din is the first sound, the first word, first poem, and (bypassing Frost’s “stay against confusion”), this din is a stay between the transcendent and the stinging flesh.
Part III, “Siege Psalter,” is an abecedarian of prose poems (“Alpha,” “Bravo,” “Charlie,” “Delta,”). Drawing upon an ancient tradition—Hebrew Psalm 118/119 is an abecedarian—these psalm-lyrics voice a wide range of religious emotions, from “Glory be to God for bungled things” to “you love the sound of your own voice, and I have to have the last word.” The poems range widely among subjects, as diverse as Shakespeare’s “Juliet,” and “Romeo,” “Golf,” “Hotel,” “X-ray,” and Alexander in “India.” My favorites are those that are most psalm-like, as my favorites in the whole collection are those that are most prayer-like—those spoken in second person to Deity. In the wonderful “Echo,” the speaker laments, “I run your reverb through my wah-wah, turn all your periods to colons; I slant, if I rhyme at all. I am here, in this deviance, and I am trying to help you find me. As if you were trying to find me.” And in “Sierra”: “I’m marching for that patch of green asplash at the horizon, where I’m certain you await me with soft linens and peeled grapes. The ridgeline juts above it like a saw, the kind that cuts a woman in half.”
Most contemporary American poems of faith stumble over a perceived ironic imperative, a fear of honesty that defeats them at the gate. Johnson leaps that hurdle with grace, learning, and sophisticated wit. Reading these poems is a delight and an inspiration. We listen, privileged to be in intimate attendance to a voice speaking at the door of God.
A Life, Any Life, One Life
Jeff Metcalf's Requiem for the Living: A Memoir
When I teach creative nonfiction, I attempt to interrogate, for myself at least, the boundaries that separate this genre from fiction and poetry which I also study and write. In my experience of writing the essays that I want to write, nonfiction comes closest to poetry. I don’t necessarily mean the lyric essay, though I do mean that too. I mean that when a writer writes about things that happen to her, sometimes the demands of language dictate that she shape the experience in such a way that what the words express are not literally true but are more emotionally true than the fact (whatever that is) stated more plainly.
I know this veers into the murky territory of “making things up”—traditionally anathema to nonfiction--but every writer is making things up all the time. Some of those things are words, some are scenes, some are pieces of dialogue no one can realistically be expected to remember.
It was in this state of mind that I began to read Jeff Metcalf’s Requiem for the Living: a memoir (University of Utah Press, Sept. 2014). I like the idea that our memories made tangible, the words themselves, can be tokens for the living, even as we ourselves hurtle toward death. Metcalf’s own close encounters with mortality inspired this book, or at least the project behind it. For the past nine years, he has been battling cancer. In the face of this disease, he decided to write an essay a week. The resulting 52 essays were pared down to make this collection, and what survives bears testament to a life well-lived and well-documented.
But it’s not the close documentation that interests me, both as a reader and a writer. It is the gesture towards shaping these scenes, these vignettes and anecdotes into a tapestry that might somehow represent the complexity of a life, any life, one life. What Metcalf does here is display, reflect on, even question the stories that comprise a life. What he attempts to do, with the set up, with the ordering, with the shaping, is to give us an arc of a life, an arc of a born storyteller.
In beginning this project, Metcalf was surely writing for himself. In “The Killing Fields” which acts as an introduction to the book, he says that he previously believed he would have time, in retirement, to organize his journals and other writings into books. The cancer put the pressure on his craft, forcing him to put writing at the forefront of his life. The essays in this collection capture a writer in the process of thinking, a writer who while sifting through memories, and records of memories, discovers scenes that shimmer with the promise of meaning and insight. This book reveals a writer who is not simply recounting but is also reliving his experiences.
All of the essays in this collection demonstrate Metcalf’s facility with narrative and language. In each one, readers can almost hear Metcalf speaking the words aloud, as if instead of holding an inert construction of paper and ink, readers were sitting down for a long chat with a friend over coffee, or maybe wine. In the best of these essays, Metcalf’s storytelling prowess combines perfectly with his skill as a poet. “Bone Deep,” an essay about fly-fishing and cancer, concludes, “[w]hen I catch a plump trout, I name it for one of my brothers and release it back into the wild where it disappears into the sacred and holy waters of my home water.” The language here perfectly captures the emotion he worked so skillfully to create in the preceding essay. These essays reward readers with the forward progression of narrative, and the momentary stillnesses of beautiful language.
The essays are poetically arranged as well, giving an emotional progression to the collection as a whole. The first section “Baptism” covers his early life, moving from New York to Europe to the Middle East to Texas. “Promise” relays how he learned the skill of storytelling from his Irish grandmother, and how she inspired him to travel Ireland, which he did. This section details his adventures from the Great Basket Islands, to Gabe’s Pub, to a dart tournament and more. “Drifting” does just what the title implies, drifting from topic to topic, fly-fishing, fire-fighting, cooking, getting married, teaching, talking, searching.
The collection ends with the section “Being,” which feels appropriately contemplative. Here Metcalf delves into more emotional territory, a last encounter with an ex-wife, a fly-fishing retreat for men living with cancer, more fly-fishing, then mortality and confronting it head-on. The final pair of essays close the collection like a rhyming couplet. “Lay Me Down” explores death, the death of a young man on a river, and the death of others causes Metcalf to return to his own mortality again. In the final essay “What’s Left?” he attempts to answer that question. There are incidents he left out of the memoir, of course, and he raises the questions of truth and memory for himself. In the end, he quotes author Ron Carlson, who said, “Everything I write about is true, even the stuff I make up.”
Metcalf’s book certainly holds many emotional truths, even for those of us who have never confronted cancer, lived in Holland, nearly drowned in a river, or fly-fished the Salmon River. The best memoirs allow us to acknowledge our own truths, as well as to remind us that most truths, like most lives, are not simple but complex constructions of experience, memory, and hope. Metcalf’s memoir is one of those books that readers will read straight through only to come back, again and again, looking for what is true.