Monday, June 21, 2010

Poem as Prayer

from Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo, 2004) by Ilya Kaminsky:

Author's Prayer

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking "What year is it?"
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Another way in which the poet engages the reader is through the act of "prayer," usually on the outset of a book. Kaminsky's prayer is a steadfast and painful one, as a survivor who must now "speak" on behalf of those that cannot. The poet's address is one to a higher sort of being, or a statement of purpose. Not only can it be construed as the guiding light of the text (the rest of the book), but it may also set the tone.

Here is another sort of prayer, this time from Dan Beachy-Quick, from his book Spell (Ahsahta, 2004). This is from the prologue of the book, and is untitled:


Here are the lines my mind fathomed.
They are tar-dark. I wrote them on pages
Breathless and blank, as beneath water
Men's minds are blank but for needing
A next breath. Sir, turn
This page and the thick door opens
By growing thinner, ever thinner,
Until the last page turns and is turned
Into air. Don't knock. The ocean knocks
Ceaseless on my little craft, and I am
Asking you, Will my craft hold? I send me
To you on a paper-thin hull. Don't knock.
I'm in there. I breathe on one lunch
for both lungs' air; my hand is wet
With knocking my knuckle to wave, and
Though the wave opens, I am never
Let in. I promised you the deep wave
's inner chamber. I'm sorry.
Do you see, Sir--
How the creast of a book builds at the binding
And finally spills over on to no shore?
Don't knock. I will ask the water to open for you
If you'll stop. Don't knock, don't knock, Sir--
Oh, it is not you. My wife's at my study door
And knows the wood won't open from wanting
Wood to. I must seal this craft's las plank
In place, and voyage it over ocean to you.
"Come in." She's knocking. "Come in."
Her hand's on my wooden shore, door--
I go. Send word, send word. If you don't, I'll know.

This is the beginning of a very impressive book of poems that adapts the megalomaniac obsessions of Moby Dick. Unlike the Kaminsky prayer, which has the air of optimism in the face of the cynic (". . . whatever I say // is a kind of petition, and the darkest / days must I praise"), Beachy-Quick's speaker is in a dark obsessive place, deep within the human psyche so that he feels entirely at sea or under sea. The door to his study is his "wooden shore," whereupon his study must be the sea. The "tar-dark" lines "my mind fathomed" are what we, as readers, shall find in this book, but the initial poem is a supplication (to his editor and us) of the poet's self-consciousness in the face of what he's written. Ultimately, the speaker-poet's a desperate man: "I send me / To you on a paper-thin hull."

Just like the opening lines of a novel or the prologue of a non-fiction piece, the first poem in a poetry collection is usually meant as a signal to what the collection will be. Very conscientious poets -- such as Kaminksy and Beachy-Quick -- are sure to do this, usually in the form of prayer or supplication.