Monday, May 10, 2010


The serpentine cross sculpture (the Brazen Serpent Monument) atop Mount Nebo. The sculpture was created by Italian artist, Giovanni Fantoni, and is symbolic of the bronze serpent created by Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified (John 3:14) 
Robert Cording’s Against Consolation is one of the best poetry volumes I have ever read. Common Life is fine too, and I'd recommend it also, but it's not quite as strong as Against Consolation, Cording’s “magical volume.” (I have noticed that many poets have one book that’s a quantum level above the others. In the case of Mark Doty, for instance, it’s his third book, My Alexandria; in the case of Carolyn Forché, it’s The Country Between Us. The odd American phenomenon is that in many cases it’s the poet’s first book [e.g. think of the luminosity of Olga Broumas’s Beginning with O ] that is the best.)
Cording is a serious poet. The poems are finely crafted, but it’s their content, so opposite of vapid, that makes them stand out. He deals with the perennial great questions, such as the problem of evil, and the difficulties of belief.
I'd hesitate to call him a "Catholic poet," with his carefully cultivated doubt and questioning -- but he is a metaphysical poet, one who keeps asking the great questions, and never settles for a nihilistic stance. You cd say that he is on the side of life, in awe of life, and could even be called a worshipper of life -- but with full awareness of human suffering and no easy assurance that we'll be recompensed in heaven, where it will all make sense.
His God is Deus absconditus -- the hidden God (note the similarity of absconditus to Escondido -- yes, it means "hidden"). In one poem, he ruthlessly ponders how we don't really miss a missing God. It’s a minor poem, and yet because of its content it has stayed in my mind (one of the criteria for evaluating poetry is memorability). 


Reading Donne again, I’m reminded I know nothing
About death, nothing save that one irrefutable fact:

I will die. And that means I’m bound to project
My sorry thoughts beyond death, cheerfully imagining

The self I call my own as still alive – though dead
Of course to everyone who knew me – jubilizing

With family and friends in a sunny field, hardly missing
At all a missing God. It’s immortality I crave instead,

That museum of ten thousand things stockpiled beyond
Our fleeting earthly hours. Why keep on with talk

Of flesh made spirit? – Donne already knew we balk
At anything less than ourselves, the one ground

Of all our hopes not God and eternity, that unseen end,
But the self curled comfortably around itself again.


(– the couplets are mine – I can't resist the fun of breaking the monotony of those single-stanza poems.)

One reason that Cording is so interesting is that he is acquainted with the work of Simone Weil, an outrageous theologian, possibly mentally ill (anorexia). I am fascinated by her idea that beauty is a trap, an ambush that God lays for the human soul as part of the "divine invasion" (she saw herself as having been "captured by Christ"). Beauty, the most common means by which God captures the soul, is a manifestation of the divine, "Christ's tender smile toward humanity" – but beauty is not to be equated with the divine – that would be idolatry.
I am also struck by this (with apologies for not having the source):
On the love of religious practices, the thought most associated with Weil's contribution to spirituality is that "one of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that “looking is what saves us.” She offers this illustration: "The bronze serpent was lifted up so that those who lay maimed in the depths of degradation should be saved by looking upon it.
(You may remember the politically incorrect [idolatry? “graven images”?] story of Moses raising the "brazen serpent" in the wilderness so that those bitten by a snake could look at it and be healed).
What Weil praised was the act of looking, really looking, since it was intense attention to something outside of oneself. To her sin was "looking at the wrong thing," the way neurosis can be defined as paying attention to the wrong thing. Weil advocates intense attention as the best kind of prayer. And I get the impression that, to her, intense study of mathematics was as worthy as intense listening to a sufferer, or intense reading of a difficult text.
I must say that 1) beauty is for me the best argument for the existence of something I might call the divine (but the existence of beauty does not prove the existence of god; it shows only that beauty exists)  2) I know that the more I concentrate, the deeper I go into something, the more intense my mental work, the greater the satisfaction, even bliss. This is the opposite of the attention deficit disorder that characterizes our manic culture as a whole (manic = shallow).
But Weil is a partial guide at best. One of my indispensable texts is Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
Weil claims that God uses both beauty and affliction as an “ambush for the soul” – the means to draw a soul to himself (for Simone Weil, God is definitely male; He lives not exactly in the sky, but in the space just beyond the atmosphere). Weil’s notion that God uses both beauty and affliction to attract a soul to the divine ties in with a fascinating paragraph in Adam Zagajewski’s Two Cities (p. 134). The speaker is someone who resembles Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn, a writer who has experienced the brutality of a totalitarian regime.
“Where is God – in suffering or in joy, in a beam of light or in terror, in a rich, free city or in a concentration camp? I knew, of course, unfortunately I knew, that it is not difficult to answer the last part of this question. What does it mean, however, when God prefers the dark and terror-filled places? Why? I have also felt the divine presence in beauty, but it seemed to me that it was not the same God.”


  1. Great post. This reminds me a lot of the gnostic Myth of the Pearl. Milosz has a fantatic version of this, "Hymn o perle," I think. Not sure if it's been translated, though one of his collections has that name.

    Leonard Kress

  2. Milosz tended to Gnosticism -- he often acknowledged this in his essays. Gnosticism offers a so-so answer to the problem of evil, but conventional Christianity has a very hard time with it, except for traditional Calvinism, which does not present a good god, but rather "I create good, I create evil." Just an uncaring monster.