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Poetry Friday

Psalm of David by Shigeru Aoki, 1906 (Public Domain)

Nicholas Samaras’s poetry has always struck me as being unbelievably rich, something that is carefully sculpted and also organic, unyielding and true. It is a psalmist’s voice, and in “A Psalm to the Mansions of Heaven,” we hear a sort of ascent, a calling out to God as he walks on the marble floors of his heavenly mansion:

“Where the Lord lives in heaven, is he lonely?”

It sounds like a line that Robert Johnson would sing, something strummed from a front porch or an empty stage. It’s an audacious question, and I think that it’s one that can only be asked by someone who has done their fair share of holy wrestling, their hip sockets wrenched and their voice hoarse, but steady:

“Who is venerable enough to keep the Lord company?”

Samaras has said that, in writing his various Psalms poems, he “wanted something American in my application, the soul of the blues meeting the soul of the biblical.” This meeting of the blues and the biblical – which really are one voice – comes out so clearly in this poem, in its repetitions of “I call,” and “Who is venerable enough?” Samaras imagines the angels, the saints, the “harrowed, holy families” laying themselves down at Christ’s throne. His study of the Psalms, and his subsequent poems, bring him to a delta where the spiritual influences on his life – Byzantine chant, Joni Mitchell, and King David – all sat and sang together, his own voice melding with the psalmist’s, and with our own:

I call to your house,

Lord. I look for you in every neighborhood.
I knock on the doors of your churches and splinter
my knuckles to find my home in you.

Here is the wrestling, the seeking and the finding. In this poem, Samaras reminds us that “the biblical Psalms are songs—both individual and choric.” Our individual wrestlings are somehow bound up with Jacob and the angel, and with the psalmist of Psalm 84, who cries, “Even the sparrow finds a nest,” and “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of iniquity.” Samaras himself wouldn’t mind “a shack on the back roads of heaven, just to live closer to you and visit, sometimes.”

And we wonder, at the poem’s end, if it is his loneliness that he is singing to, his own loneliness that he offers up to God so plaintively, so resolutely. I think that we can also wonder if he helps us offer up our own, our own knuckles splintered, our voice joining his:

“My voice is small, yet I call to your house, Lord.”

— Allison Backous Troy

A Psalm to the Mansions of Heaven

Where the Lord lives in heaven, is he lonely?
Does our Father walk his marble floors without
the company of anyone righteous? Who alone
is venerable enough to keep the Lord company?

My voice is small, yet I call to your house, Lord.
Does the wind enter your chambers and rooms,
cold and empty? Where are the souls of the righteous,
and how may they warm you? I call to your house,

Lord. I look for you in every neighborhood.
I knock on the doors of your churches and splinter
my knuckles to find my home in you. Who alone
is venerable enough to keep the Lord company?

The breezes of seraphic wings call for speech.
The chorus of saints harmonizes in hazed light.
The harrowed, holy families lay their repentance
before the thrones of Christ and the twelve apostles.

May they live well and reach down to us living
who are sublet and mortgaged, deeded and indebted.
Lord, I also bring repentance to offer for earnest money.
Even in this life, I ask to sit in your drafty parish home.

I’d be satisfied to live in a shack on the back roads
of heaven, just to live closer to you and visit, sometimes.
What I learned in the exotic air and streets of Jerusalem
is that, without company, even paradise is lonely.

–Nicholas Samaras

A Psalm to the Mansions of Heaven originally appeared in Image No. 62. Read more about Nicholas Samaras’s poetry inspired by the Psalms in this interview with Image’s Mary Kenagy Mitchell.


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