The Psalm of Nothing (by Nicholas Samaras)

"Pennies and Youth" (Phaedra Taylor)

I've just gotten my hands on a copy of Nicholas Samaras' book of poems, American Psalm, World PsalmIt's a collection of 150 poems. Unlike the creative renderings of the Psalter by Jim Cotter and Laurance Wieder, Samaras imagines how the biblical psalms might be transposed in contemporary times. As he puts it:

"I view it an excellent approach to think of contemporary psalms in terms of the experimental nature of modal Jazz--the arrangement extending outward in improvisation, but always returning to its base form. In this, I regarded the extension of imagined modern psalms as likewise tending outward--yet always returning to the Biblical psalms in measure of base structure, theme, content, literary device, and lyrical expression, illuminating what may be constant in human struggle--social, political, and artistic."

He summarizes his thinking this way: "Every form of artistry (including prayer) begins in rhythm, cadence, music, and relationships."

There are few better précis on the nature of art, one could argue, than this one. I copy out below one of Samaras' "psalms" that has stayed with me throughout the day.


Lord, I start with nothing.

I start with only your spark on my breath,
the exhalation of feeble desire.

I start with nothing.

I first meet the Lord as my creator.
I live in the center.
I emanate when I breathe.
I speak with my breath.
What I exhale, I bring
back within.

Without the Lord, I remain
nothing in my own devices.
I become a grown man
without purpose, without relation or identity.
There is nothing real without identity and relation.

Even the monk holds relation with his prayer.
Even the hermit holds
dialogue with his heartbeat.

Lord, my feeble song is this human need
to write it down and make it real.

Even a grown man may breathe out a prayer.
Even a grown man may remain a child inside.

As a child, I thought a man's chest
was invincible. I marveled at my father's
massive chest and mane, his Alexandrian breathing.

Now grown, I question everything of myself.
My own lion chest becomes no shield
but the thing, one day, to betray my breath.

Now mature enough to pray, I say,
Lord, let me speak with my breath
while I have breath.
Let me come from healing and go to healing.
Lord, soften my calloused heart.

Let me venerate my start
by hallowing the passage of my ending.

I was brought from
nothing into something--
a soul, a spark to honor
the breath of my father.

Mature now to know I have not been the center.
Mature now to know how to cleanse by breathing.
Aspire the Lord and exhale myself.
Aspire the Lord and exhale myself.

"Chassis Waiting" (Phaedra Taylor)


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