I have now finished contemporary poet Mark Jarman’s book of poems, Unholy Sonnets. I have thoroughly enjoyed his variation on John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. It took me a while to harmonize with these poems, but it did happen. Saying that, I will say that I prefer Christian Wiman and Scott Cairns (especially the former).
I wanted to quote a poem from this fourth section of Unholy Sonnets. In each of the four parts, Jarman has one long sonnet (i.e. a poem made of several sonnets). The one from the third part, “Sightings,” is fantastic, but decided to quote a different poem. For the fourth part, I have decided to quote the entire long poem, Unholy Sonnet 48, “The World.” (I am going to bold and red some of this poem to highlight some favorite parts of this poem, since it is slightly longer than a normal 14-liner).
The world works for us and we call it grace.
It works against us and, if we are brave,
We call it nothing and we keep our faith,
And only to ourselves we call it fate.
What makes the world work? No one seems to know.
The clouds arrange the weather, the sea goes
Deep, a black stillness seethes at the earth’s core,
And somebody invents the telephone.
If we are smart, we know where we fit in.
If we are lucky, we know what to bid.
If we are good, we know a charming fib
Can do more good than harm. So we tell it.
The world was meant to operate like this.
The working of the world was ever thus.
The working of the world was ever thus.
The empty air surrounds us with its love.
A fire of water opens at a touch.
And earth erupts, earth curves away, earth yields.
Someone imagines strive and someone peace.
Someone inserts the god in the machine
And someone picks him out like a poppy seed.
In every new construction of desire,
The old dissatisfactions rule the eyes.
The new moon eats the old and, slice by slice,
Rebuilds a face of luminous delight,
In which we see ourselves, at last, make sense.
It is the mirror in everything that shines.
It is the mirror in everything that shines
And makes the soul the color of the sky
And clarifies and gradually blinds
And shows the spider its enormous bride.
And we show our reluctant gratitude,
Searching the paths and runways for a spoor
Of cosmic personality, one clue,
Even the fossil light of burned-out proof.
It is enough and not enough to sketch
The human mask inside the swarming nest
And hold the face, a template, to the egg
And stamp its features on the blank of death.
Although we break rock open to find life
We cannot stare the strangeness from the leaf.
We cannot stare the strangeness from the leaf,
And so we spin all the difference on a wheel
And blur it into likeness. So we seize
The firefly and teach it human need
And mine its phosphor for cold light and call
Across the world as if it were a lawn,
Blinking awake at summer dusk. We talk
Ceaselessly to things that can’t respond
Or won’t respond. What are we talking for?
We’re talking to coax hope and love from zero.
We’re talking so the brain of the geode
Will listen like a garden heliotrope
And open its quartz flowers. We are talking
Because speech is a sun, a kind of making.
Because speech is a sun, a kind of making,
And muteness we have always found estranging,
Because even our silences are phrasing
And language is the tongue we curl for naming,
Because we want the earth to be like heaven
And heaven to be everywhere we’re headed,
Because we hope our formulae, like hexes,
Will stop and speed up time at our behesting.
There is no help for us, and that’s our glory.
A furious refusal to acknowledge,
Except in words, the smallness of our portion,
Pumps heart, lights brain, and conjures up a soul
From next to nothing. We know all flesh is grass.
And when the world works, we still call it grace.
And here are the titles I gave to each of the Unholy Sonnets (bold means that Jarman titled them himself; red means that I quoted that poem).
- 1, The Word Answer
- 2, Care of Prayers
- 3, Bend
- 4, Pry Open the Heavens
- 5, Out of my Painful Stasis
- 6, The Chained Angel
- 7, God in the Details
- 8, Omniscience
- 9, Spam Prayers
- 10, The Haves and Have-nots of Prayer
- 11, Shoplift Catechism
- 12, God Is Not and Is
- 13, Selfhood
- 14, In Via Est Cisterna
- 15, The Definition of Alone
- 16, Christ’s Paradox
- 17, Unpleased
- 18, Cycle
- 19, Lucifer’s Songs
- 20, Thinness
- 21, Harsh Attire
- 22, The Loss
- 23, The Third Day
- 24, The Dead
- 25, Pleasure Our God
- 26, In Memoriam R.J.
- 27, Heats Devoured
- 28, Camera
- 29, The Soul
- 30, Sightings
- 31, Worship Always
- 32, Law
- 33, A Poet’s Prayer
- Praying to Nothing
- 35, Silence
- 36, Love: The Aftermath
- 37, The Attempts
- 38, Endure
- 39, Voices
- 40, Conception
- 41, The Muchness of Persimmons
- 42, Reversal
- 43, Mind to Mind
- 44, Dreamless Mindless Sleep
- 45, Larry Levis
- 46, Nashville Noon
- 47, Orchestration
- 48, The World