Monday, November 1, 2010

Scott Cairns' "Compass of Affection"

I’ve never read a theology of poetry before, but I have now with Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected by Scott Cairns.

Published in 2006, this volume of poems includes several selected from previously published works from 1985 to 2002, and then new poems published in 2006. Together, they constitute a kind of “theology of poetry,” or perhaps a poetry of theology.

Cairns, professor of English at the University of Missouri, employs poetry to study the teachings of the Bible, the role of tradition, and the life of faith. It is a quiet volume, quiet but full of important things.

It’s not the first poem selected, but “The Beginning of the World” is a kind of commentary and explication of the Book of Genesis. From that poem, first published in Figures for the Ghost in 1994:

“But even before that original issue, first utterance of our Great
solitary, His self-demarcation of Himself, before even that first birth
I suspect an inclination. In God’s center, something of a murmur,
pre-verbal, pre-phenomenal, perhaps nothing more disturbing to the
moment than a silent clearing of the hollowed throat, am approach
merely, but it was a beginning earlier than the one we had supposed,
and a willingness for something standing our apart from Him, if
nonetheless His own.”

“Blessed,” published in the volume Philokalia in 2002, is a kind of commentary on the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew:

“By their very designations, we know the meek
are available for all manner of insult,
the poor have no effectual recourse against
the blithe designs of the rich, and that enigmatic
crew we recognize as merciful still refuses
to stand up for itself, which makes all of them prime
objects for whatever device the brutes ordain…”

Many of the poems are about the idea of life and faith as pilgrimage, yet it is not the idea that “the journey is the point” but more than faith itself is a pilgrimage, often an interior pilgrimage, the growing awareness of God. From “Against Justice” (2006):

“Yes, I know the poem is difficult, but far more likely to be read
than any script the habits score. The chore, as I’ve suggested,
lies in tracing any solid thread between the outcome
and its cause, any lead, or leading proposition posed
so as to offer what pass for revelation. The God
is hardly just, and we are grateful for His oversight.”

Compass of Affection is a richly splendid introduction to Scott Cairns’ poetry and his faith, as well as to the idea of faith itself.

Related: “Scott Cairns: Poet of Pilgrimage,” my post at The Christian Manifesto.


Michael said...

Okay, so now I'm really intrigued.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ok...let's add one more to the book pile! I've liked what I've read of Cairns' work - looking forward to this one...

Jerry said...

Great overview to get me hooked. Cairns always seemed a bit out of my league. But this book sounds like a good intro into some soul stretching.

Anonymous said...

the carrot is dangling before my nose.

Maureen said...

Adding my voice to others' to take a look at this collection.