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Good Letters

Did you ever try finding words for the experience of prayer? Or for the sense of mysterious contact with the divine? That’s what Scott Cairns is attempting in “Speculation: Along the Way.” He tries out a metaphor of a distant thunderstorm — which might however be within. “Might” is in fact a key word in this poem of deliberate tentativeness. Look at all the phrases denoting the tentative: “may seem oddly”; “that’s how it feels, anyway”; “it hardly matters”; “maybe,” “let’s say it’s so.” Tentativeness in speaking of divine contact is in a sense the poem’s very subject. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes in this issue of Image in which Cairns’ poem appears: “To see the world, to see ourselves in the light of the resurrection, means that Christians cannot help but discover that our language is inadequate for the task. That is why poetry is so important for the work of theology. For the poet is in an ongoing struggle to find the words necessary to say what cannot be said.” Cairns dramatizes this “ongoing struggle” by composing the poem’s first twelve lines as a single sentence — as if he refuses closure until he has achieved the poem’s goal. But the goal can’t be reached; and he pretends to give up with a shrug of “Sure, // I’m making this up as I go… / Maybe I’m taking you along.” So the poem’s final phrase — “say we now commence” — marks the hoped-for beginning of something that doesn’t continue; and the poem itself stands as a delightfully crafted process of uncertainty.

—Peggy Rosenthal

“Speculation: Along the Way,” by Scott Cairns

The roaring alongside he takes for granted.
—“Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop

And when, of a given evening, say, an evening laced
with storm clouds skirting distance parsed by slanting light,

or when the thick air of an August afternoon by the late approach
of just such a storm turns suddenly thin and cool, and the familiar

roaring, for the moment made especially unmistakable
by distant thunder, may seem oddly to be answered from within

—that’s how it feels, anyway—and when, of a moment, such roaring
couples as well with sudden calm—interior, exterior, it hardly matters—

in that fortunate incursion whereby the roar itself is suddenly interred,
you might startle to having had a taste of what will pass as prayer,

or a taste, at the very least, of how fraught, how laden the visible is,
even as you find a likely figure for its uncanny agency. Sure,

I’m making this up as I go, hoping—even as I go—to be finally
getting somewhere. And maybe I am. Maybe I’m taking you along.

Let’s say it’s so, and say we now commence.

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Scott Cairns

Photo used with permission by Ben Seidelman.

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