This article is a revised version of the original posted at The Master’s Artist.
Poet and editor Paul Hoover is a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University. He and wife, poet and fiction writer Maxine Chernoff, edit the literary magazine New American Writing. He’s won awards, prizes and fellowships. He helped found the Poetry Center at Chicago’s Art Institute and the Poetry Series at the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco. He’s published 13 collections of poetry. He is definitely what we might call part of the “Poetry Establishment.”
The March 2011 issue of Poetry included three poems by Hoover: “House of Cedar, Rafters of Fire,” “The Dry Bones,” and “The Watchman of Ephraim.” It’s not unusual for Poetry to publish poems by such an established, widely respected and admired poet like Hoover. What is surprising is that all three poems are infused – obviously and overtly infused – with religious themes and symbolism. In fact, each begins with a line from a book of the Old Testament: Song of Solomon, Ezekiel and Hosea, respectively.
The Poetry website links three other poems by Hoover published in June 2010, which are also inspired by books in the Old Testament: “God’s Promises” (Zephaniah); “Have You Eaten of the Tree?” (Genesis) and “To the Choirmaster” (Habakkuk). (Click on this link and then the “About This Poem” tab for the links to the poems.)
It’s interesting what Hoover does with these six poems. They are not so much interpretations of the Old Testament books or even specific passages as they are applications to contemporary society. Consider how “The Watchman of Ephraim” begins:
Hear the word of the Lord,
ye children of Pittsburgh
of Calistoga and Tlaquepaque,
ye hierophants and wishbones,
teraphim and household plants,
for I am a jealous God betrayed.
The lines have the flow and the feel of Hosea, the sense of it connotes the themes of Hosea, but the use of the three cities injects a particularly modern feel – Pittsburgh, associated with industry; Calistoga, CA, at the northern end of the Napa Valley wine country; and Tlaquepaque, a part of Guadalajara, Mexico. Then Hoover calls the children he’s addressing “hierophants” (priests of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries) and wishbones, Teraphim (Semitic household gods) and household plants, combining references to ancient religions to common, everyday household items.
Hoover does the same thing in “God’s Promises,” using Biblically prophetic language to describe what are everyday items in our modern society:
I the Lord will make barren
your fields and your fairways.
Your refrigerators will be empty,
no steaks and no legs bones,
no butter and no cornbread…
In “The Dry Bones,” he sounds distinctly like Ezekiel (and Revelations, for that matter) when he describes the four creatures with the likeness of a man, each with four outstretched wings and “each wing had four eyes emblazoned, wide open / given to weeping at the worlds they contained…” And then he names the four creatures: Dow Jones, Cargill, Chevron and DeKalb of the frozen seed – the financial news wire owned by the Wall Street Journal, a grain company, an oil company, and a corn seed company. The poem continues with describing what the princes of the sea wear – Nikes, Reeboks, scholar’s robes, sharkskin suits and Chuvashian mittens, and says that they shall cast these garments “upon the land’s end…for the-princes of fire consume what they love, / with the reckless ambition of gods.”
So what is going on here, with this use of Biblical language applied to contemporary life, society and even business?
One suggested approach is that Hoover is writing about the unchanging nature of humanity, that even with all of our knowledge ad and understanding we have simply substituted refrigerators and fairways for the idols of ancient Israel, that we have our idols and household gods just like idolatrous Israel did.
Ultimately, of course, the gods we create, the gods that make the one God so jealous, are ourselves. We are the princes of the sea, the princes of fire; we are the hierophants and teraphim with our household plants and our refrigerators and our Nikes. We are the idols of clay, and it is to clay, to dust, that we will return.
Photograph by Lilla Frerichs via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.