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J P Wooding

Eighteen Psalms, by Edward Clarke (Periplum Poetry, 2018)

Peter Gizzi once told me that for poets God remains an “occupational hazard”. Well, for a few of them anyway. I guess we either avoid the hazard – most poets do (we’re all indifferent secularists or post-religious atheists aren’t we?) – or continue to hazard our own guesses about what Iris Murdoch refers to as whatever led us to use the word ‘God’ in the first place. Whatever, Edward Clarke is prepared to hazard a guess, for as he writes: “Rational atheism would deprive man of experience of the holy” (p.7, the vagabond spirit of poetry, iff Books, 2014). If holiness remains a live issue, (even when the Grand Inquisitor’s “miracle, mystery and authority” are post-religiously over), then I suspect that psalms, prayers and apostrophizing modes might remain part of the poet’s toolkit. And anyway, if we haven’t read about the “necessary non-existence” of God in Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, or about God’s “decomposition” in Jacques Pohier’s God in Fragments, or the “religious condition of modernity” in Mark C Taylor’s After God, can we really be writing serious poetry? Just kidding.

And yet the apostrophic mode intrinsic to such a hazardous business is all so very embarrassing (as Jonathan Culler writes in his The Pursuit of Signs), isn’t it? Have you tried it? Wallace Stevens never actually prayed to his ‘supreme fiction’, did he? But why ever not? Yeats tried it: “O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer”. See what I mean? Really rather embarrassing. And what about Wordsworth addressing Peele Castle? “I was thy neighbour once, thou rugged Pile!” Crikey! Embarrassing, yes, but isn’t it a primal, primaeval, cheek-reddening (or cheek-blanching) self-consciousness – you know: “What is man, that thou art mindful | of him?” (Psalm 8; KJV). O, ye poets! Imagine scribing that on parchment 3000 years ago under a silent desert sky, (before systematic theology was invented).

But look, unless we settle for Wittgenstein-in-verse, we’re going to have to apostrophize at some point, overcome our embarrassment, and perhaps concede that Arnold’s tidal sea of faith sometimes comes in after, yes, withdrawing, (in the Mediterranean?) Culler may be of assistance: “The animicity enforced by the apostrophe is independent of any claims made about the actual properties of the object addressed.” That’s worth contemplating, I’d say. It’s a high calling – “invocation is a figure of vocation”, writes Culler; it works “less to establish an I-Thou relation” as to “dramatize…an image of self”. There you are. Self-portraiture, (with a life of its own). (D’you know? my copy of John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook (1996), in its glossary of technical terms doesn’t even mention ‘apostrophe’ (except as indicative of possession) – O Rose, thou art sick! No wonder Culler writes “one might be justified in taking apostrophe as the figure of all that is most radical, embarrassing, pretentious, and mystificatory in the lyric”.) Let’s see. How does Edward Clarke fare?

At the end of the Second Book of Kings, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, before destroying Jerusalem [597 BCE], slaughters “the sons of Zedekiah [king in Jerusalem]…then put(s) out the eyes of Zedekiah” who is then “bound …in fetters” and taken to Babylon. (It’s not until 520 BCE that work is begun on restoring the Temple.) The unfortunate Zedekiah makes an appearance in Clarke’s psalm ‘61, 62 and 63’ “His eyes put out, | As at the end of Kings”. Clarke is taking issue, apparently, with “scholars” who miss the point about real suffering, ineradicable from the psalmist’s project. Zedekiah may well be the psalmist’s representative – so too Job and Lear – stripped of all agency and identity save the cries of defiance and of honest reckoning. Late in this sampling of Clarke’s complete psalter then, in a psalm/song/lyric entitled ‘61,62 and 63’, we get this:

                              But I will claim
                              The heritage
                         Of those who fear your name,
                         Cornered in this late age,
                              The men stretched out
                              Inside a nook
          Of blackened paradise: the open book
          Downturned dove-like upon our cryptic doubt.

Ahem, HaShem?

Clarke does not dispense with the awkward apostrophic mode. To castigate Nobodaddy is not, after all, to dispense with the religious enterprise entirely, take note. Clarke examines the Psalter – “I have worked my way through the Masoretic Text, consulting old concordances and lexicons” – with the help of Donald Davie’s The Psalms in English (Penguin Classics, 1996), and the King James Bible, with a view to “imitation” or “transplantation” of, let’s say, the mode of the psalms, “not translations or versifications”. His technical proficiency must be a benchmark for us all. I think of George Herbert and of Thomas Hardy as I marvel at the daring and variety of the forms adopted, the revelatory patterns and pairings. What does ‘God’ rhyme with? Well, “Guide” apparently, in ‘14 (and 53)’, though note this is an “Idiot’s Guide”, the rhyme thus successfully demonstrating the inadequacies of the “fool’s” assertion that “meaning’s functional” – transformative, redemptive, surely!

And ‘psalms’? Well, there’s the more conventional “palm” (‘92’), and “calm” (‘98’) (though both are surprising in context), and elsewhere “psalm” chimes internally with “overwhelming” (’61, 62 and 63’), then most tellingly and serenely is structurally paired in ‘108’ with the rhyme-resistant “loot” in a form looted, I think, from Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. ‘108’ is very rich, anxious self-portraiture sitting movingly alongside quiet prophetic alienation: “An arid land of start- | Up businesses, a four-square city | With money at its heart”. And look at these beautiful, defiant lines:

                    ‘Vain is the help of man’: I’ll take
                              That line and plant it firm
                    In lofty soil of this one hundred-
                              Year-old lyric form,
          The invention of a man, forlorn at fifty,
                    Counting what leaves us swiftly.

Beautiful because self-quenching, tragic, oxymoronic.

Clarke begins his psalter with the humility of the latecomer and the afterthought – “And as he passed this way one evening”. It’s a humility which contradicts our post-religious world. No explanations, nor apologies, here is Yahweh. Well, a Yahweh-figure as he [sic] might appear in the Pentateuch or Mark’s gospel or in William Blake – and we are reminded that God’s life as a literary character will continue to be of significance long after all ontological proofs have died the death. Here he is, muse-like, making everything new: “Murmuring no hymn | I’d learned at school”. Just how familiar is he? What authority does he exercise? If this is the addressee of Clarke’s psalms – (I take him also to be the “tall and white-haired neighbour” who like Coleridge’s ‘man from Porlock’ knocks at the door in ‘98’, and the heterodox “voice” of ‘77’ “that rarely went to school”, yet “possesses me, and all I’ve known and read”) – it is worth taking note that it is important to be earnest, for he comes across some men “Discoursing ironically” and Yeshua-like, no-nonsense, he says, “Follow me”. Clarke follows. This encounter “re-routes” the beneficiary, and contrary to Isaiah, and enthrallingly, involves making “my crooked tracks | Perceptible” (my italics). Heterodox indeed. We’re reminded that for Clarke poetry is a vagabond spirit, that to err is human, is to wander, that inerrancy is not an option.

There are other signs that Clarke is taking his post-religious theology seriously. He’s not keen on the denial of intrinsic value, I’d say, when we sense his disapproval of the notion of “an endless play of signifiers” (‘1’). Nor of nihilism – “The blacked out space | Of man upon his perspectival race” (’61, 62 and 63’). The word “disillusioned” is over-chimed in ‘64’ with a preserving “solution”. And though to be “born” (‘64, III’) suggests being “forlorn”, Clarke insists that his poem – “this babbling child” – “I myself must build”. God’s in your hands now, you unacknowledged legislators! so best take courage, and step up to our responsibility. Yes, this is serious stuff.

What could be called the more overt or positive theologizing, reminding us perhaps of Eliot’s Ash Wednesday meditations – “To prove we are today all apostate” – comes in ‘14 (and 53)’. This seems to be Ed’s “righteous hijack”, deliberately raising our complacent atheological hackles, and inviting scrutiny as to whether this is an adequate or convincing metaphysic for the 21st century:

          The truth’s betrayed by fools, by all of us
          On earth, so we can build ourselves its house
                              Of many mansions,
          Without our knowing even the building’s begun,
          The better to fulfill the inscrutable plan
                              Creation sanctions:
          That man must recreate himself the Word
          In which he lives: the world that loves our words.

I think this is saying that a God built with words is always what God was, and that the recognition of this does not spell God’s redundancy (pace Feuerbach); words are part of the natural order, and as Wittgenstein suggests, proclaim either the prison or the New Eden which are the limits of a person’s world, “the Word | In which he lives”. This is a radicalism not incompatible with what at times appears more orthodox. Clarke is essayist-Eliot’s ‘individual talent’ within a losing tradition – even Ed is ‘less familiar’ with Coverdale’s psalm translations (Book of Common Prayer) than with those of the KJV – “Reflashing” (‘64’) our “incredulous and disillusioned” contemporaneity, cowboy builders, “Majestic companies” and all.

Some time round the third quarter of the 19th century, Thomas Hardy was confirming his agnosticism with a reading of the scandalous, supposedly irreligious Essays and Reviews (1860). This may be what led to a depiction of David the Psalmist as “a debonair | Shrewd bandit, skilled as banjo-player” (at least in the eyes of the persona of ‘The Respectable Burgher | On ‘The Higher Criticism’ ’ (from Poems of the Past and the Present (1901(2))). I think Clarke would be happy with such a representation of any psalmist – he directs us elsewhere to vagabonds such as Lycidas and Autolycus as the embodiment of the anarchic spirit of poetry – so we shouldn’t be surprised (though we are) when in ‘70’, he chooses accompanying music for his psalms not from Tallis or Howells, but some wild fiddle music from the southern states of America – “I’d like to set you to | The tune | Of ‘Wolves A_Howling’”. This psalmist can dance! What’s this? A sacrament of praise?

A D Nuttall can be good on the returns and returnings of poetic apostrophe – Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John (1980) – exploring the impossible marriage between poetry and prayer:  “the bourgeois marriage of poet and reader which now dominates literature and criticism was once infiltrated by a third party [God], whose claims are both more importunate and more absolute than those of any ordinary lover.” That ‘third party’ is not merely an occupational hazard for Clarke but the “burden of | His lust” as Clarke says of the “prosperous” man in ‘1’. The use of the word ‘lust’ is a characteristically vagabond moment, and the inflection it gives to the following lines has appropriate oxymoronic, psalmic (note, not solipsistic) force:

His lust, the massive self-secluding love
The everlasting has for us, and on
This law, whose words a finger cast at stone
That rain has made illegible, he makes
His heartfelt moan, a murmuring cry that breaks
Its words upon his tongue by dawn and day’s end.

HaShem, poem, amen.


Copyright © J P Wooding, 2018