My husband and I pray together after breakfast and after dinner, using The Liturgy of the Hours (a version of the former breviary used by Catholic priests but, after Vatican II, made available to the laity). Each Morning and Evening Prayer includes two psalms. Psalm 121 is read on one Friday evening every four weeks. The opening is familiar:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where shall come my help?
My help shall come from the Lord
who made heaven and earth.
Naturally, then, I was drawn to Christopher Howell’s “Reflection upon Psalm 121,” which actually begins with the psalm’s first line. The poem then moves into images of blossoms, rain, and birds “canting” (singing): a scene we’re invited to picture. The scene is pleasant, and continues so into the next image: of “steam ris[ing] off the pond.” Suddenly, though, the steam becomes “cordite”: a poisonous explosive bringing “numberless dead” floating before our eyes. This horrifying image instantly shifts the poem’s tone. Now Psalm 121’s opening line recurs as a question: what “refuge from disaster” will I find “if I do lift up mine eyes”?
The word “refuge” is used four times in this short poem. To me, it’s a response to Psalm 121’s repetition (five times) of the Lord as our “guard”: that is, we find our refuge in the Lord who guards us. I recall how the Lord is explicitly our “refuge” in numerous psalms — like Psalm 46, where “God is for us a refuge and a strength, a helper close at hand, in time of distress.”
“God” in Howell’s poem, however, is both closer and further away than this:
God is a tree on the moon
I pause a long time over these wild words. God as a tree is intriguing, but “on the moon” shoots this tree into outer space. I hang out in space… then suddenly fall deep “inside” myself with the next line. Where is my God? Who is my God? Whatever the answers, I’m left with the “fruit” of Eden’s tree, offered — alas — to our “loneliness.” I’ve gone far from Psalm 121’s God who “will guard you from evil.” Any “refuge” seems, by the poem’s end, almost refuge’s opposite: we’re all, frightened and fragile, expelled from Eden’s garden. The poem’s powerfully painful final line deliberately undercuts the very essence of Psalm121’s confidence in God as my guard. In fact, the poem’s world has moved from the reassurance of Psalm 121 to the abandonment of, say, Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” –Peggy Rosenthal
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.
I think of that line
again as blossoms blow with rain.
Beyond the orchard
someone sings. Birds cant their heads
to ask if this is the tree they remember, if the refugee
finds refuge, truly.
Steam rises off the pond; or is it
a cordite fog, the numberless dead floating like lilies
in its breath. And if I do lift up mine eyes,
what beauteous face, what refuge from disaster,
what old beloved place?
God is a tree on the moon
inside us. And of its fruit
shall we not eat? Our loneliness, beyond all hunger,
says we must.
This is the refuge toward which all
the frightened and expelled move
with breathless care, as if they might spill
themselves. How difficult then
to lift up one’s eyes.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.