99 psalms: prayer-poems that “refuse to leave us unattended”
it was nearly 17 months ago, on a hot saturday’s afternoon, with little sleep the night before, that i climbed the stairs of a gray triple-decker (boston vernacular for what chicagoans call the “three-flat”), just down the lane and around the corner from harvard square. there i met a bearded gentle man, a man who presided over an aerie where birds came to the windows, where sunrise poured into the living room, and sunset washed the kitchen in a rose-tinted rinse. cabinets were stacked with pottery, cobalt rough-hewn plates, heavy to the hand; mugs whose handles met the flesh of your palm with solid tenderness. and books, books lined the walls, floor to ceiling, in half the rooms.
the bearded bespectacled man was mark burrows. he was, for 11 months, our landlord. and he will be, for life, my lighthouse keeper and my teacher.
mark (for in this moment i address him as a friend) is a professor of poetry and divinity, a scholar of mysticism, and a historian of medieval christianity. in that first walk-through of the two-bedroom-two-office apartment for rent, as i spied the titles on his desk, i knew i needed to live there. i needed to inhale the essential texts, and the poetry and prayer that breathed there.
almost a year ago, mark, who is now teaching theology and literature at the university of applied sciences in bochum, germany, published the luminous “prayers of a young poet” (paraclete press, 2013), a collection of 67 poems of rainer maria rilke, the great german poet. that book, the first english translation of rilke’s prayers in their original form, evoked for poet jane hirshfield, “leonardo da vinci’s notebooks — it shows the same mix of surety, roughness, genius, and the sense of a precipitous creative speed.”
rilke explores “the poetry of search,” or as burrows writes, “poetry that ponders darkness.”
just weeks ago, my teacher, professor burrows, published another translation of a poet whose work dares to explore the often unexplored landscape — the soul in exile. this time, burrows put his considerable intellect to the work of a poet i’d not ever known, one who goes by the pen name of SAID.
the book is titled, “99 psalms: SAID,” translated from german by mark s. burrows (paraclete press, 2013).
born in tehran, SAID emigrated to germany as an engineering student in 1965, but he abandoned those studies to pursue a writing career, and through the power of his poetry, has become a prominent figure in the german literary scene.
burrows first encountered SAID, he recalls, on a “dreary, rain-soaked night” in munich’s old city hall in may of 2010, at a poetry reading held in conjunction with the second ecumenical Kirchentag, a massive gathering sponsored by the roman catholic church and the protestant church of germany.
as SAID took to the microphone, burrows writes that he noticed the audience leaning forward, the better to absorb what flowed next.
“the psalms he chose…were blunt, vivid, and often startling in their language and imagery. none betrayed any trace of sentimentality…the fierce directness of their language conveyed a marked impatience with intolerance, probing the ambiguities of life with an unflinching honesty in order to remind us — if we had forgotten — that ‘purity isn’t the sister of truth.'”
burrows goes on to write that “these are psalms that cry out against the confidence of zealots, with their claims of righteous authority over others — crusaders, campaigners, and jihadists alike.”
in other words, the exile SAID writes poems of exile, “psalms arising from a ‘no-man’s-land.'” he employs a metaphor of wind as “a hope that reaches beyond religious differences and across the growing disparities between the affluent and poor,” as burrows writes.
in the tradition of the hebrew psalmist, SAID’s works are poems of praise and lament. burrows writes that “the poems we need are often the ones that refuse to leave us unattended.” they remind us “to look beyond what we know, or think we know.”
these poems, writes burrows, “bear witness to the heart’s descent into loneliness and despair, and gesture to the ascents we also know in moments of compassion and generosity.”
as always, poetry does the work of capturing the unspoken, unformed fragments of our heart, of our deepest imagination. the poet, as the butterfly catcher, employs the vessels of language to net, to gather, to collect the flitting-about, untethered, winged idea, the moment.
the poet does the work so we — the reader, the listener, the lonely pilgrim — can stake some claim of understanding in a landscape that until the moment of the poet’s poetry has escaped us.
the poet places us, solidly, in territory at once familiar and foreign. we trip upon the syllables of the imagination, and we find ourselves breathless at the poet’s deep knowing, at the exhilarating moment of loneliness collapsed. we recognize, we understand anew the depths of the human spirit, in wordform before un-uttered.
SAID addresses his psalms to “lord,” though not one bound by any religious tradition. he is certainly a late-modern psalmist, and his prayer poems speak to the complexities of the tangled fractious world in which we live. he explores the human condition with more urgency, perhaps, than he explores the divine. and therein is tension, poetry that refuses to leave us unattended.
one last thing, before i leave you with a psalm or two: about the 99 psalms, the number ninety-nine in the muslim tradition is the precise number of names by which Allah — God — is known. there remains one name — “the last/ the hidden” — that is unknowable, beyond us. so too with the 99 psalms; we are left wondering about the one beyond, the one which, perhaps, is written but not known, or not yet written. what might the unknowable tell us? why are we left not knowing?
here, a pair of SAID psalms that “refuse to leave you unattended”:
that we recognize you
when you come
destroy the go-between gods
with their grand airs and their daily needs
set your seal upon your houses
and don’t be afraid of our nakedness
let the cypresses be your messengers
for they stand upright and whisper
and don’t try to convert the wind
[pause for silence.]
and now, one other, though choosing only one was tough, indeed…
spread wide your arms
and protect us
from the multitudes of your guardians
stand by those who wander
who’ve not lost the gift of hearing
and listen within their solitude
stand by those too
who stay and wait for you
[silence, once again…]
chair friends, i come to you on a wednesday, because in the publishing world these days, blogging about a book is one way to cast wider the net. and today was the day they asked me to write.
i ask: is there a poem in your life — or especially in your now — that refuses to leave you unattended? and what about the 100th psalm, do you wonder what it asks or says?
Love this…part of my day is sending out attendance and something of interest, distraction, or inspiration. Once a week I send a poem. I sent this poem of SAID’s on 9/11….
to engage prayer as a weapon
i wish it to be like a river
between two shores
for i seek neither punishment nor grace
but new skin
that can bear this world
I keep a copy on my bulletin board. He is a poet for the soul.
you are totally the most wide-reading soul i know. you know ALL the great works. the psalm you cite is a magnificent one, the first time i read the words “new skin/ that can bear this world” i gasped aloud. some days i don’t know if there is skin to bear this world.
oh my goodness, the wonders of the internet, where the whole globe comes crashing — gloriously — onto your banged-up maple table. here, from the website of paraclete press, i’ve found a video of mark burrows presenting one of his jaw-dropping talks, “God as Sanctuary.”
click this link, which should bring you to the page for “99 psalms,” and scroll a bit down to where you will find two video clips: an interview with mark on the left, and this presentation on the right. click either one, but “God as Sanctuary” is as close to being in the hushed halls of glastonbury abbey with mark burrows as one might get, short of buying a pair of plane tickets — one for mark, and one for whoever wants to listen in…
Buying it right now. Oh, my goodness, thank you. Will share it with a women’s retreat in October, and it will open us up. xo
bless you, and bless your wholly open spirit. xoxo
my dear chair friends, if anyone is wondering, i am leaving my wednesday post as the post for this week. it is a friday morning and i am dashing to talk to a roomful of readers about the glories of a runt pig, a spider and a girl named fern who stood up for justice. and then i am typing as rapidly as my little fingers will type, aiming to meet my “revisions” deadline just around the bend. sending love. as always. see you next friday. xoxo
Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver, is like a tuning fork for my inner being. It concludes,
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
But there’s another wonderful chain of words, pure prose poetry, that begins a story of yearning for our lost connectedness with immaculate wildness. It’s the haunting opening paragraph of Loren Eiseley’s The Bird and the Machine (the birds are a mated pair of kestrels):
I suppose their little bones have years ago been lost among the stones and winds of those high glacial pastures. I suppose their feathers blew eventually into the piles of tumbleweed beneath the straggling cattle fences and rotted there in the mountain snows, along with dead steers and all the other things that drift to an end in the corners of the wire. I do not quite know why I should be thinking of birds over the New York Times at breakfast, particularly the birds of my youth half a continent away. It is a funny thing what the brain will do with memories and how it will treasure them and finally bring them into odd juxtapositions with other things, as though it wanted to make a design, or get some meaning out of them, whether you want it or not, or even see it.
I’ve read that passage scores of times, and it still brings tears to my eyes. In unsettling times, I reread the essay to remember what really matters.
magnificently magnificent. oh, the gifts piled high on this table. and all around, in every chair. xoxox
A week and a half later, here is a petition, the likes of which I’ve never seen before, that appeared in the Prayers of Intercession in worship this morning: “Inspire translators, hymn writers, poets, and all who explore your word. Through their work may we receive your word anew. Hear us, O God.”
I become uncomfortable when people begin mentioning God’s name. What I am sure to follow is a feeling of exclusion. “We are INcluded, you are EXcluded.” But … there is a poem by ee cummings that transcends all that for me. (Please resist all urges to change the word order of the 1st line and the spacing around the punctuation. What ARE those urges about?)
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
i love ee and know just what he is saying in this prayerpoem.