Dogma-free pool of reflections
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.