Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnets, I, 8


After having finished reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, I wanted to read a variation of such poems: a book of sonnets by contemporary poet Mark Jarman called Unholy Sonnets.

The book is made up of about fifty sonnets split up into four parts. I have just completed the first part of this series of poems, consisting of twelve poems, eleven of which are single sonnets, one of which is a three-sonnet poem.

As with all other poets I have encountered, especially contemporary poets, I have had a “getting-used-to” stage. It always takes a little bit for me to get into the groove once I begin reading a new poet. I think as of tonight, now that I have looked back at these twelve poems and reread them and named them, I feel like I am becoming acquainted with Jarman.

I will quote my favorite of these twelve from part one: the eighth sonnet which I have titled “Omniscience.”

He loads his weapons but the Lord God sees him.
He hears the inner voice that tells him, “Yes,”
The voice that tells him, “No.” And the Lord sees him,
Watching as he listens first to one voice,
A melody, then the other, like a latch
That slips and catches, slips, until it clicks.
The Lord God sees the hard decision taken,
Watching with his seven compound eyes,
As intimate as starlight, as detached.
He sees between the victims and the killer
Each angle of trajectory. Unshaken,
He sees the horror dreamed and brought to being
And still maintains his vigil and his power,
Which you and I would squander with a scream.


Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian


In the summer following my senior year of high school, I read Blood Meridian, the most violent piece of art I had encountered at that point in my life. Now that I have just finished rereading this novel, it is still the most violent piece of art I have experienced.

The novel tells the story of the Glanton gang, a group of Americans, residual from the Mexican-American War, set out to Scalp Native Americans for money. The novel’s main character is the kid, never named. He is very far from being a hero, and I’m unsure that I would deem him an anti-hero either. The judge, the socalled antagonist of the novel, is more like a hero than the kid, much like Milton’s Satan is in some sense heroic – or perhaps it’s just the case that the judge (and Satan) are merely more sympathetic characters than the socalled protagonists of their respective works.

Every sentence of McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian is unbelievably enticing. The reader feels guilty at finding such violence, or such representation of violence, so incredibly beautiful. McCarthy’s prose some strange alloy of archaic and contemporary, of the Bible and of Modern American Literature. His writing has been most related to the Old Testament, Dante Alighieri (esp. The Divine Comedy), John Milton (esp. Paradise Lost), Herman Melville (esp. Moby Dick), and William Faulkner (esp. As I Lay Dying). I don’t think there is any other prose work whose diction and syntax I enjoy more. The only rivals might be the work of James Joyce.

The novel, both in its violent content and strange diction, has been one of the most difficult books I have read. It took much work. I read it once before, and this time I read each chapter, looked up all the words I didn’t know, and reread the each chapter while listening to an audio book.

In guise of Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic worldview (this is what I understand his belief system to be), Blood Meridian seems to present this violence as eternal. War is eternal, or it at least began with man and may or may not end with him too. There is much more to this nihilism, but for fear of speaking too much or speaking incorrectly, I will not.

What I am going to quote is an oft-quoted passage of the novel. I do find this passage incredibly beautiful and terrifying, as well as representative of the linguistic and violent qualities of the text. The Glanton gang gets attacked by a clan of Native Americans, I believe Apaches:

The first of the herd began to swing past them in a pall of yellow dust, rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle and no two alike and small thin mules coalblack that shouldered one another and reared their malletshaped heads above the backs above the others and then more cattle and finally the first of the herders riding up the outer side and keeping the stock between themselves and the mountain company. Behind them came a herd of several ponies. The seargent looked for Candelario. He kept backing along the ranks but he could not find him. He nudged his horse through the column and moved up the far side. The lattermost of the drovers were now coming through the dust and the captain was gesturing and shouting. The ponies had begun to veer off from the herd and the drovers were beating their way toward this armed company met with on the plain. Already you could see through the dust on the ponies hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, fogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace and sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’ whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. (pp. 54-55)

My other post on Blood Meridian from the summer after my senior year in high school: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

John Donne, The Holy Sonnets, [Holy Sonnet XIV]


I just now finished reading and studying a series of poems by 17th Century metaphysical poet, John Donne. These 19 poems are his “Holy Sonnets,” poems in sonnet form about God and death and salvation, etc… I had read some of these before, but this was the first time I read through all 19 in sequential order. I put these poems on my thesis reading list a while ago, but chose to read them now since I recently read Wit by Margaret Edson. This is a play about an English professor, who specializes in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and how she deals with stage 4 ovarian cancer.

Donne’s proficiency in formal poetry (the sonnet) is impressive, as he lets it carry what he says rather than letting it inhibit what he says. My favorite of the sonnets, I believe, is the 14th, a poem about suffering and reason, among other things:

[p.s. I am unsure of the textual accuracy of my text, but this is the spelling and punctuation that is in my edition]

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee’and bend
Your force, to break, blowe, burn and make me new,
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labout to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish me.

This poem, I think, is a beseech the Lord to break and imprison the one who is speaking to the Lord. “Break me,” “batter me,” “imprison me,” and “MAKE ME NEW.” This pain, these blows are working towards some purpose, and the poet knows that, and asks the Lord to bend him that he might be made new.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, Erotic Word, Idiot Psalm 11


Last night, I finished the fourth part of Idiot Psalms, Erotic Word. It mainly focused on Eros, in all its different facets. He seems to bridge the gap between the sexual relation between man and woman, and the creative relation between author and reader, which I find very interesting. I also might just be reading into Cairns, but perhaps not.

I have enjoyed Scott Cairns’ poetry extensively so. It was hard for me to get used to his writing, but that’s how I feel with every new poet I read. His language leads to the mystic and archaic and biblical – yet there is a contemporary inventiveness every now and then.

I am quoting his first poem from Part IV, Idiot Psalm 11:

– a psalm of Isaak, growled against the floorboards

O Undisclosed, O Surreptitious, O Most
Furtive Father of all things manifest
and all things tucked away, O Pulse
Unceasing within each quark, both
up and down, both strange and charm, O
Deep Threefold Only Who sets amid this
vast menagerie Your pouting children, we
who for some duration remain, oddly
propelled and for the most part upright,
if alternately weeping, if alternately
bursting forth in broad guffaw, O Arch
and Covert Cause, do come again, incline
yet to be shown here in our midst, You
Who Are, allegedly, ever here, and ever
thus, impossibly among us.

Like Christian Wiman, another contemporary Christian poet, Cairns poetry is upfront about the emotions of the Christian. God is among us, but “allegedly.”

I discussed with one of my friends recently, the use of inventive apostrophe in Cairns’ poems. I had never thought of apostrophe, the direct invocation of someone or something, as much of a literary technique. Yet, Cairns has shown me how much can be done with apostrophe. He is able to show in inventive ways, the negative emotions the Christian has toward God. He feels gone, and sometimes diabolical. Yet, he is not. And he is able to show us this in these iterations of apostrophe.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, My Byzantium, Idiot Psalm 9

EPSON DSC picture

I have been continuing this four-part book of poems by contemporary poet and professor, Scott Cairns. I have just finished Part III. My Byzantium. In this section, most of the poems seem to be from, or set during, Cairns’ trip(s) to Greece – especially to Mount Athos and surrounding areas. These poems seem to concerned with getting somewhere, finding silence, and coming to understanding (by stripping oneself of everything).

The epigraph for this third part is this:

… let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

-Saint Paul to the Colossians

I will say I’ve noticed that Cairns seems to constantly use the same words across many poems. For example, he uses “fraught” and “lit” frequently, along with other words. This is not a bad or good thing – I merely have noticed that trend.

One of the choice poems from Part III is Idiot Psalm 9:

a psalm of Isaak, in the stillness

We say flight of the imagination,
but stand ankle deep in silt. We say deep
life of the mind
, but seal the stone to keep
the tomb untouched. O Stillness. Nearly all
we find to say we speak for the most part
unawares, what little bit we think to say
unmoved, O Great Enormity Unmoved.

Brief thaw turned ragged March extending, O
Lost Cause, into yet another ragged April, so.
Brief shoots of new green trampled underfoot
by sleet, and lo, accumulating weather, moot,
sore-clipped — spring flowers tattered with the cold.

Lord, we say, have mercy on us, by which
each idiot more nearly means to plead
O, Silent One Unspeaking, save me.

This poem, among other these, points out two aspects of human life: (1) the way we speak and (2) the way we perceive God speaking. When we do speak, we do so “unawares” and “unmoved.” We find God to be the “Silent One Unspeaking.” Yet the idiot cries out to the one perceived as unspeaking for salvation. For God has SPOKEN – and he has ACTED – and by those words and deeds he has saved these idiots.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, Hesychasterion, Articulation


I have been continuing my reading of Scott Cairns’ book of poems, Idiot Psalms. This second section is titled “Hesychasterion.” This comes from the word “hesychasm:” stillness, rest, quiet, silence; a mystical tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church; the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. This second part is a search for stillness, and this is deeply intertwined with the journey towards idiocy that Cairns has already set up.

The epigraph to Part II is this:

I beg you, never disregard a single soul,

especially when it happens to be a monk or a beggar.

For Your Charity knows that His place is among the beggars…

-Saint Simeon of Syria, the Holy Fool


My favorite poem from this part, I think, is a poem titled “Articulation.” I share much of the concerns about language that this poem sees to posit.

What I have come to say is never quite
sufficient; what I have come to say falls
ever short, if reliably — my one,
my only certainty. This fact, for now,
can prove both deep discouragement and deep
elusive hope. I’ve come to trust our words’
most modest crap shoot; I have come, as well,
to see their limit as my proof. If, one
fresh morning, I should come to apprehend
how ever full with presence every breath
now is — and even now — I have a sense
my words would grow so heavy as to still.
I suppose that morning then would open
to our eighth day, whose sunrise will not set.

I don’t know exactly what to do with Cairns’ poetry, but I have been enjoying it. His hearkening and mystical voice is consoling. And his poems named after the title of the book (Idiot Psalm 1-14 – I have read 1-7) are especially good. A few of these poems go among my favorite poems period. They are a good mixture of humor and sincerity.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, Part I. Unawares, Idiot Psalm 2


I am currently read, as I work on my thesis in creative writing, a book of poems by contemporary Christian poet, Scott Cairns. Along with other books of poetry, Cairns has translated writings/poetry of the mystic Christian Fathers. Thus, his poetry, as I have experienced from the first part of Idiot Psalms, is deeply mystical and aged, even if it still contemporary and experimental at times.

This book is separated out into four parts: I. Unawares, II. Heychasterion, III. My Byzantium, and IV. Erotic Word. I just finished part one, and I will now quote one of my favorite poems from this first section.

Idiot Psalm 2

-a psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds

O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper

of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent

of energies both appalling and unobserved,

do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen

or ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant

to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,

nor narrowing his affective sympathies

neither of the flesh nor of the allegéd soul.

Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue

to enjoy my morning run among the lilies

and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might

delight in this and every evening’s intercourse

with the woman You have set beside me.

Make me to awaken daily with a willingness

to roll out readily, accompanied

by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,

the idiot’s undying expectation,

despite the evidence.

In the end of this poem, he wishes to be humbled to the role of “idiot” – the one who is able to smile “despite the evidence” of the grim abundances of reality. This is possibly the central thread that I have seen run through all of the poems in this collection (hence, Idiot Psalms). The epigraph to Part I comes from one of my all time favorite writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky:

…one must first begin

by not understanding many things.

-Prince Myshkin, from The Idiot

I believe that Cairns wishes to bring himself and the reader to a place of stupidity. For there alone can we encounter truth and attain any sort of knowledge.

I look forward to continue my reading of these poems. Cairns is both an atypical and historical/traditional poet. He also has quite a bit of humor (I especially noticed it in Idiot Psalms 3 [0:55-2:22]). I hope I can become “an idiot” in being a companion to his poems.