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Diane Glancy. Psalm to Whom(e). Turtle Point Press, 2023.
Julia Fiedorczuk. Psalms. Translated by Bill Johnston. University of Wisconsin Press, 2023.


“Let Emily Sing for you Because she Cannot Pray”
————————-——Emily Dickinson, in a letter to her Norcross cousins


WITH OUR VOICES WE CRY, laugh, scream, converse, whisper, petition, pray, make music, argue, grieve, beg, apologize, protest, debate, woo, make amends, curse, take oaths, make vows, and proclaim our rights and those of others. Voice can be a private or a public matter, and often both at once.

Voice can also denote the right to express an opinion or choice (“to have a voice in the matter”); one can lend one’s voice to a political or social cause. A person or agency through which something is expressed or revealed can be called a voice (“Kendrick Lamar is the leading voice of hip hop”). A singer can be in good voice; there are voice parts: alto, soprano, bass, tenor. One grammatical mode, often used by children and politicians to dodge responsibility, is the passive voice (“a window was hit with a snowball”; “a wall was built”).

We have voice votes, voice-overs, vocal fry. There is an accent known as Hollywood voice (think Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant). We listen to Voice of America. There are voice talents (the sounds behind our favorite animated figures, audio books, radio shows—I can’t hear the voice of Pamela Adlon’s character, Sam, on Better Things, for instance, without catching an echo of Bobby from King of the Hill). The Voice is even its own television show, on which various singers are voted (a word etymologically linked to voice) off the island. So to speak.

Voice development in human beings begins before we’re even born. At four weeks in utero, a rudimentary larynx begins to form. Vocal ligaments take shape by ten weeks. By full term, most infants possess a fine working set of vocal chords. And as we grow—early childhood, adolescence, older age—our vocal chords continue to change. Cartilage hardens. The larynx descends. Vocal folds lengthen. Voices drop for some. Vocal range extends. Then shortens.

As it turns out, the larynx (or voice box) had a lot to do not only with our own development but with the evolution of the very first human beings. Many experts believe that the development of a complex vocal apparatus and a brain capable of controlling it were absolutely crucial to our becoming human in the first place. As prehumans evolved, language drove physiological evolution, conferring advantages to those capable of producing more complex language sounds. Apparently, an expanded and lower larynx—a physiological necessity for articulate speech—evolved in late Homo erectus.

There is a fascinating paradox in this evolutionary lower larynx position: Although the lower larynx is important to the production of complex speech, it also makes human beings more susceptible to choking and being choked than any other species on the planet. From this paradox, some have concluded that because the benefits of communication would appear to outweigh the costs of potential choking, we can assume that this larynx position is a key adaptation in the origin of language and of the fully human person.

What’s exciting to me is the suggestion that the linguistic advantages outweigh the physiological disadvantages of a lower larynx. And if, as Constantine Sedikides, John J. Skowronski, and R.I.M. Dunbar suggest in “When and Why Did the Human Self Evolve?” (in Evolution and Social Psychology), “the emergence of language is as vital to our evolutionary history as most anthropologists believe, and if language is indispensable to our species, it is perhaps no exaggeration to claim that the descent of the larynx permitted the ascent of [human]kind” (emphasis mine).

Our earliest literatures were oral—spoken, sung, often accompanied by musical instruments—and handed down from generation to generation by highly mnemonic tactics such as repeated patterns of syntactical phrasing, rhythms, and tropes. Among the earliest of these poems were the psalms now gathered in the Hebrew Bible. The word psalm derives from the Greek verb psallein, to pull or pluck, as in twanging or striking the string of a harp. Little wonder, then, that in the centuries following the gathering and myriad translations of these biblical utterances (petitions, thanksgivings, praises, complaints), countless poets have turned to them to reinterpret their power, their musicality, their insistence on the power of the vocalized. Psalms appear in the work of earlier poets—Christopher Smart, Isaac Watts, Paul Celan, George Oppen—as well as contemporary ones, among them D. Nurske, Jericho Brown, Khaled Mattawa, Grace Schulman, David Baker, Mark Jarman, and Rita Dove. This year brings us two new books that evoke the psalms and continue poetry’s ongoing conversation with and inspiration by them— Diane Glancy’s Psalm to Whom(e) and Julia Fiedorczuk’s Psalms, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.


Like most innovative poetries, the piecework (she calls it “quilt work”) in Diane Glancy’s Psalm to Whom(e) is adjacent to many genres, including travelogue, field notes, lists (which Umberto Eco calls the “origin of culture”), memoir, etymologies, catalogs of proper names (particularly of Native American places and peoples of her heritage), histories, anecdote, philosophy, and neologisms, as well as visual grammar—photographs, line drawings. Glancy puts language under a lot of pressure. “Writing,” she says in her introduction, “sometimes is a way of translating English into English. It’s a way of stretching or pulling language until it becomes a transparency through which other things can be seen—old thought patterns, for instance…the struggle to reconcile the I and the It. And to seek the Whome who is supposed to be over all. In which to build shelter. To find home.” Yet despite the torque of this “translation,” the collection, a page-turner, moves with vision and alacrity through its terrain of back roads, anomic landscapes, lost languages, loneliness, and God-hunger in its search for the various voices and guises of “the Whome who is supposed to be over all.”

Glancy is interested in voice, in the language of the spatial with its “phatic communion.” In her introduction, she writes, “I try to purpose oralities,” and in a later poem, “Psalms on Air Moving,” she says, “Poetry itself is memory. It comes from a long tradition going back to the origin of poetry as breath, as root cause of being—meaning those who are rooted in struggling with the root-cause of meaning. The root of breath actually is the first cry in the form of a question.” This certainly sounds like the praise and plaints of biblical psalms, and Glancy refers to them throughout the collection. But the passage above was written in response to a reading of Pliny’s Natural History, and in fact a host of biblical texts and figures, chiefly John the Baptist and the Gospel of Mark, haunt the poems, as do ancient cave drawings, Gertrude Stein’s writing, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, an often-visited horse in a field, the theory of relativity, and so on. Her poems draw on everything from Facebook to fractal physics.

Much of Glancy’s on-the-road breviary was written during the pandemic, a time when I—like Glancy—turned to my favorite of the four Gospels, Mark. It is the first of the four, the shortest, the one purportedly with the strongest ties to a person, Peter, who actually knew Jesus. Reading Mark during lockdown, pre-vaccine, in my yoga pants, I was struck, first of all, by what a super-spreader Jesus is in this book. He is always spitting into his hands and touching people’s faces, laying hands on them, allowing himself to be touched. I was also struck anew by the urgency of the narrative, both literally (Jesus, like Glancy, is always on the move) and in the meta-narratives: the parables that Jesus tells the people, and then his retelling of them to his disciples when they fail to understand him.

Quickly he had written the book—
Listening to Peter who fled prison to Mark’s mother’s house—
Acts 12—and talked for days the way Peter did hastily about
Jesus’ life, saying, this and this, and this—
and Mark wrote—nonstop—until he stopped
and did not go on…
————-—(from “The Gospel of Mark Ends Abruptly”)


Jesus’s circuitous use of parables seems aligned with Glancy’s praxis. “I don’t think I can write a straight line of anything,” Glancy writes in “The Psalms on Air Moving.” “I want the sidebar.” In another poem, “In the Beginning: The Importance of Wildlife in the Development of Human Thought,” she writes, “On FB I saw a quote by Virginia Woolf—I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot. When I read it, I thought, I want the poetry of the plot. // Poetry has its exegesis in the unstrung. But poetry also is story.”

Glancy does not shy away from the travail in travel, in her searching—loneliness, grief, doubt, longing are all here. There is an authenticity to the wonder and searching that makes of this work a consolation. Perhaps trying to find God, to find home, to find a home in God, is a bit—to quote Sir Thomas Wyatt—like trying “in a net…to hold the wynde.” And yet to try do so in the net of language is worth the struggle. Glancy puts it this way at the close of “The Psalms on Air Moving,” and in doing so conveys one of the great achievements of this special book:

To substantiate the great air pocket over which we reside. Or in which we reside. The great uncertainty sucks visages toward itself. It provides a sense of certainty or substance in the likeness of certainty. The great unknown would eat us otherwise—if we didn’t construct netting into which we catch something other than what is prose.


In an essay published in Writing: A Mosaic of New Perspectives, the translator and poet Randall Couch speaks of a source text as a burning house and of translation of that text as what the translator chooses to take out of that house on fire—literal meaning? emotional gist or drift?—and offers Jean Cocteau’s take on the matter:

Si le feu brûlait ma maison qu’emporterai-je?
J’aimerais emporter le feu.

If my house was on fire what would I take?
I’d like to take the fire.

Without knowing a shred of Polish, I get a strong sense that the fire is what translator Bill Johnson has drawn from in his translations into English of the Polish poet Julia Fiedorczuk’s luminous collection Psalms. In an interview with Fiedorczuk conducted in 2020, Johnston asks where her idea for writing psalms comes from, expecting her to speak to the influence of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Fiedorczuk responded this way:

Wordlessly she pointed to the two sides of her throat, then finally said: “They came from here.” She had recently begun singing lessons, after a lifetime believing (mistakenly) that she could not sing; her teacher was a synagogue cantor, and the lessons made use of the biblical Hebrew Fiedorczuk was simultaneously learning. Loosely deriving from the biblical Book of Psalms, and its lovely rendering into Polish by Czesław Miłosz, Fiedorczuk’s Psalms are above all songs—or words to songs, if you prefer. They spring from the throat—the body—just as much as from the brain.

And indeed—in poems about motherhood (“motherhood / is a life sentence” from “Psalm I”), the endangered planet, loss, and war—Fiedorczuk’s psalms are rife with references to voice, to breath, to song. They resound with incendiary causes for weeping and laughing—grief and joy—two preverbal, distinctly human utterances that poet David Baker, in Radiant Lyre, calls the predecessors of lyric poetry. “a sky with scraps of snow, / my child! To make it through to you all, sing myself there, / scramble, breathe my way to you,” she writes in “Feast of December.” In “Psalm III,” in which the urgency of her psalm/prayer/petition is so strong that it d/e/volves into the refrain (la la) of a carol, she writes:

in what language should I speak to you, sun
so you’ll rise tomorrow for my child, so you’ll
rise and stimulate the growth of our food,

how should I sing it for my child
how should I sing it to you, planet, so you’ll forgive me
for giving birth to appetite, for giving birth
————————————————to a question

hooked onto nothing, how can I win
the generosity of the creator-bacteria
how can I win clean rain air glucose
————————————————la la
so we’ll lie down and fall asleep, so we’ll wake up
so we’ll lie down and fall asleep, so we’ll wake up,
—————————————————–—la la

so you’ll lie us down and fall us asleep, and wake us—

In other poems, the speaker’s urgency is so palpable that the text breaks off, as though whatever might be voiced is snatched away for the wind to carry and to speak, as in “Psalm XVIII”:

at night her fear spills over into my dreams, no
big deal, awoken in the safety of cotton
we laugh at the black water, the fog, the wings
of wind in the cracks of the house, and the Warsaw sky
works its quiet way, showing us only its inside,
the palm of its hand; and then a flock of pigeons
swoops in her eyes, her barefoot soul, her bareheaded
soul runs,
———————chases the wind, wait,
I say firmly to time, for a brief moment
it seems to me that—

For Fiedorczuk, her own song is inseparable from the natural world (the seasons, the night sky, the flora and fauna) that she so clearly attends to, loves, and mourns: “let there be song,” she writes in “Psalm XCII,” “in the breathing of rocks / underfoot in the deliberations of the lichens / in body tissues fairy rings // and when the abyss calls out with a roar of waterfalls / we feed on tears / so it might happen again and again and again / before our eyes on our skin our tongues in truth—”


These recent books of psalms by Diane Glancy and Julia Fiedorczuk remind us that voices put us in the generative space of the shared, the relational; they engage us in a place of self and other, self and world, self and self.

What could be more important?

Whether one is an accountant, a healthcare worker, a religious leader, an activist, a librarian, a chef, a doula, a politician, a diplomat, a lawyer, an art historian, a landscaper, a mother or father, a teacher, a spy, a coder, a designer of costumes or websites or roller coasters, a journalist, a chemist, a nuclear engineer, a painter, a lily of the field, or even, perhaps especially, a poet—our real vocation—our calling—is our human voice. Our human voice, in all the myriad ways in which we have wielded and will wield it, is our calling, our sounded self. In Beyond Words, Frederick Buechner speaks to the profound possibilities for opening to the ineffable when words are combined with elements of song:

When a prayer or a psalm or a passage from the Gospels is chanted, we hear the words again. We hear them in a new way. We remember that they are not only meaning, but music and mystery. The chanting italicizes them. The prose becomes poetry. The prosaic becomes powerful.

The respective new approaches to the psalms in these new books by Glancy and Fiedorczuk, with their attention to the vocalized, give us access to just that: music and mystery as a kind of votive vocation. In “Cold,” a poem that alludes to the Ukrainian war, Fiedorczuk writes, “a poet’s job is to write,” to “take a risk and [call] for help.” Glancy concludes “Titled North Central Texas” this way:

It seems to me
to call upon the unknown one.
To call home.

Calling. Our calling, these poets suggest and bear out—both our own act of crying out and the call of the voices we heed—may indeed be our most urgent, genuine, and human calling, our truest vocation.



Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of fourteen books, most recently Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems and a novel, Paradise Close (Persea). Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, and Carol Weinstein Poetry Prize. She is professor of English at the University of Virginia.



Photo by Panos Sakalakis on Unsplash

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