Three Poems: by Scott Cairns, George Herbert and Billy Collins

"Take Strength from the Sun and Heave" by Erica L. Grimm

In light of Scott Cairns' visit to Duke Divinity School on Thursday, September 25, I'm posting one of his poems here. If a poem could summarize the third chapter of my dissertation, then "The Human Person: #2," which appears in his book Love's Immensity and which is a re-working of a text by St. Irenaeus (c. 125-210 AD), is that poem. If I could submit his poem instead of my chapter to my dissertation committee, well, let's just say I would be tempted.

I'm also posting a poem by George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican poet-priest, which I offer especially to all my preacher friends.

(And now, twenty-four hours later, I'm doing something I don't normally do: re-titling my post. Matthew Westerholm brought to my attention a choice poem by Billy Collins, that playfully moves in the ostensibly opposite direction of Scott's poem. Both, though, seem to share a common aim, namely to concentrate our sights on the altogether strange but also marvelous quality of our enfleshed lives. Thank you, Matthew!)

The Human Person: #2 (by Scott Cairns)

Soul and spirit may be your parts,
but they are not your all. As for the you
entire? A mixture and a gathering: a soul

receiving the Spirit of the Father, joined
to flesh graved in His image. Lose the clay
and what you have is not a spiritual man

but something more like bodiless spirit of a man.
Still, when Spirit, sweetly blended with a soul, unites
with God-shaped clay, you find then striding

in unique beauty a spiritual and complete
man or woman, made to bear, in lush company,
both the image and the likeness of the God.

Purity (by Billy Collins)

My favourite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants and a pot of cold tea.

Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide if off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.

Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.
In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.

I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.

After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.

Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.

The Bunch of Grapes (by George Herbert)

Joy, I did lock thee up: but some bad man
            Hath let thee out again:
And now, methinks, I am where I began
            Sev'n years ago: one vogue and vein,
            One aire of thoughts usurps my brain,
I did toward Canaan draw; but now I am
Brought back to the Red Sea, the sea of shame.

For as the Jews of old by God's command
            Travell'd, and saw no town;
So now each Christian hath his journeys spann'd:
            Their storie pennes and sets us down.
            A single deed is small renown.
God's works are wide, and let in future times;
His ancient justice overflows our crimes.

Then have we too our guardian fires and clouds.
            Our Scripture-dew drops fast:
We have our sands and serpents, tents and shrowds,
            Alas! our murmurings come not last.
            But where's the cluster? where's the taste
Of mine inheritance? Lord, if I must borrow,
Let me as well take up their joy, as sorrow.

But can he want the grape, who hath the wine?
            I have their fruit and more.
Blessed be God, who prosper'd Noah's vine,
            And made it bring forth grapes good store.
            But much more him I must adore,
Who of the law's sowre juice sweet wine did make,
Ev'n God himself, being pressed for my sake.


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