Dogma-free pool of re­flec­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off Page

Re­li­gion these days is some­thing about which al­most ev­ery­one feels a lit­tle am­biva­lent. The no­to­ri­ous ex­cep­tions are hard­core athe­ists, bar­baric fun­da­men­tal­ists (choose your faith) and cheer­ily evan­gel­i­cal Hill­songers. This book is em­phat­i­cally not for them.

It is likely, how­ever, to charm al­most ev­ery­one else — in­clud­ing more thought­ful Chris­tians of all de­nom­i­na­tions, open-minded ag­nos­tics, sci­en­tists who con­cede there are some things be­yond their cur­rent reach, and all who en­joy a well-writ­ten con­tem­po­rary poem, re­gard­less of con­tent.

Mel­bourne po­ets Jordie Al­bis­ton and Kevin Bro­phy have com­piled Prayers of a Sec­u­lar World via web­site sub­mis­sions from an im­pres­sive range of Aus­tralian po­ets, es­tab­lished and rel­a­tively un­known. The an­thol­ogy opens with a fore­word by pub­lisher Donna Ward and a sub­stan­tial in­tro­duc­tion by David Tacey, one of Aus­tralia’s fore­most ex­perts on mys­ti­cism. Ward re­calls the an­thol­ogy’s ori­gin in a re­mark­able per­for­mance by Al­bis­ton of her poem La­men­ta­tions: the pub­lisher felt she was “in the pres­ence of a prayer for our time”.

Tacey be­gins by re­call­ing how the athe­ist post­mod­ernist philoso­pher Jac­ques Der­rida, at the end of his life, “knelt down be­side his bed and prayed ev­ery night”. Tacey then pro­ceeds to draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween “pe­ti­tionary prayer” and “con­tem­pla­tive prayer”, with the lat­ter mean­ing “we ask the Un­known what we can do to im­prove the world”.

Not ev­ery­one will find this sec­ond va­ri­ety con­vinc­ing but to athe­ists and ag­nos­tics it may seem an im­prove­ment on the first. At the end of the in­tro­duc­tion we are re­minded that “the tran­scen­dent doesn’t hap­pen else­where, apart from the world, but is a di­men­sion of the world”. Po­ets, Tacey ar­gues, are the ones who are able to “bring this aware­ness into our own lived ex­pe­ri­ence”.

It is not easy to say what these hun­dred or so po­ems have in com­mon but they do un­doubt­edly talk to each other through­out. Al­most all, in one way or another, are con­cerned with those mo­ments (or pe­ri­ods) in our lives about which science has al­most noth­ing use­ful to say. A short­list of ex­am­ples would in­clude land­scapes or seascapes seen in cer­tain lights, love and death in their var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions, episodes of un­ex­pected com­pas­sion, sud­den em­pathies with other sen­tient be­ings and so on.

It hap­pens that these are ar­eas where po­ets have al­most al­ways (or at least since the ro­man­tics) op­er­ated, in­deed in which po­ets have a par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise, not through any su­pe­rior sen­si­tiv­ity but through their abil­ity to evoke such mo­ments — or im­ply them.

Not all the po­ems are equally “tran­scen­dent” but there are many which are. This re­viewer be­gan by ir­re­spon­si­bly turn­ing down the cor­ner of po­ems from which he might later quote but had to give up when al­most ev­ery sec­ond page was be­ing mis­treated.

There are nu­mer­ous po­ems here which are well up to (or even a lit­tle be­yond) the stan­dards of the well-re­spected po­ets who wrote them. And there are quite a few other po­ems (by po­ets much less well-known) which send the reader to the bi­o­graph­i­cal notes to check what else might be avail­able.

Be­fore sub­stan­ti­at­ing these claims, how­ever, one should ob­serve that al­most none of these po­ems is a “prayer” by ei­ther of Tacey’s def­i­ni­tions. God or “the uni­verse” is rarely ad­dressed di­rectly and al­most never pe­ti­tioned. In­stead, the po­ets are remembering (or imag­in­ing) ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ments that oc­curred in the con­text of the “or­di­nary” — or the “sec­u­lar” if you will. None of them il­lus­trates or ad­vo­cates a par­tic­u­lar dogma. Rather, they re­joice in the fact that life is more com­plex — and less pre­dictable — than we had ever imag­ined.

With so many strong po­ems avail­able it’s in­vid­i­ous to sin­gle out par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ples, let alone try to rank them. It will have to be enough to look at the virtues of just two. Take, for in­stance, Pe­tra White’s The Joy­ous­ness of Men, which is a love poem but also one of ex­al­ta­tion in an al­most re­li­gious sense.

Two lines es­tab­lish the scene: “When we run to­gether I am na­tively con­tent / as a dog run­ning be­side its per­son”. Note she doesn’t say “owner”. Later there is more con­text: “The river runs back­ward be­side us, crin­kling / and brown in the dim­ming air.” The poet sees how “He sprints in great joy, he splashes / around in his soul like a duck.” It’s not of­ten that we see “soul” and “duck” in the same sen­tence, but it’s clear what White means.

This is a poem of great phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual energy, sus­tained to the end: “Love is run­ning and noth­ing can stop it, / to a grave at the end of its own pos­si­ble time. / It runs and runs and says Let’s run again.”

At a rather dif­fer­ent speed, but no less com­pelling, is Ju­dith Bev­eridge’s To My Neigh­bour’s Hens. It’s one of a few po­ems here that protest against fac­tory farm­ing but it’s much more than that. It’s hen heaven and hen hell — as seen from over the fence, but with so much em­pa­thy we’re al­most in the hens’ heads.

We segue from one pos­si­bil­ity to the other in a sin­gle sen­tence: “May you al­ways scratch at the earth among / the or­di­nary sounds of tree branches sway­ing, / dogs bark­ing, leaves blow­ing, and never have / to live on a slop­ing wire floor with six other birds / in a space the size of a fil­ing cab­i­net drawer, / your beaks cut off, all of you starved, bald, / mad, never see­ing the day­light.”

It gets worse for the hens be­fore, like Or­pheus, they are re­stored to a world where they will “al­ways be fed corn, oat­meal, spaghetti, / chow mein and risotto leftovers, the crusts of toast / and dark pumper­nickel, green and yel­low / kitchen scraps into which fair, ge­nial hu­mans / have mixed the shells of your own good eggs”.

These two are per­haps enough to sug­gest the range and in­ten­sity of many other po­ems in Prayers of a Sec­u­lar World.

They are cer­tainly not be “prayers” in the in­ter­ces­sory sense but they are con­tem­pla­tive and very likely to widen and di­ver­sify the meta­phys­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties of all but the most hard­ened of fun­da­men­tal­ists — who, no doubt, al­ready have their own (more lim­ited) re­wards in view.

is a poet and critic.

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