Two mornings ago, I stared at the black earth in a corner of my friend’s backyard. I had been sitting on a red bench lost in some thought for several minutes when a small yellow leaf appeared brightly against the earth. It had been there all along, but a long time passed before I became aware of its presence. Poems are like that. They come into view slowly. What did Emily Dickinson say? “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
“Thankfully for now, God is invisible.”
Susan Cowger begins Slender Warble, her collection of seventy-five poems, saying that though we’d like to see God “nose-to-nose” that really may not be the best idea in our present state. We’re just not substantial enough, as C.S. Lewis points out in many of his writings. Cowger sees this as an invitation to listen closely to the ways in which God does make himself available to us through a “song that was not only made for you, it was sung to you”, a song that is “no more than a chirp filtering through the noise of life.” Maybe God’s dazzling presence is parceled out in these slender slow syllables—a word waiting patiently like a little leaf coiled against the black?
Recently, I found it helpful to have philosopher D.C. Schindler point out that the word “immediate” means “not-mediated.” We have never had immediate contact with God, though God mediates contact constantly and in myriad ways through Creation. Faint and tremulous as the chirp-song may be, Cowger assures us something real is being mediated, something made for us, given to us.
If that’s the case, if all of Creation is the medium through which God mediates the song, then it follows that Our Lord’s voice is likely to show up in the most unlikely places. We expect it in beauty, of course, but as Cowger shows us in these poems, that voice may pipe up in the story of torn skin, death in a train tunnel, running water, orange peels, cancer beds, or even the breathless terror of watching a child fall out of an apple tree.
The “Burden of Sweetness”
Good poets are intercessors, a kind of trembling volunteer willing to raise their hand in a crowd and pioneer some bewildering human experience for us. The slender warbles they listen for in the noise are like long-lost blazes marking a way through an overgrown and obscured path. Marilynne Robinson says in her novel Gilead that to be ‘useful’ like this is to be brave and to be brave is to be generous and to be generous is to be vulnerable.
In the opening poem “Weather Report”, Cowger writes that after finding a bunch of dead bees on the porch she will
a ladder scout for the hive
and the burden of sweetness
somewhere inside these walls
The honeyed hope the path promises comes at a cost: the drones lay down their lives. Our poet decides to climb a ladder and scout for the sweetness that was worth their death, but it’s not immediately apparent; it is hidden in the walls somewhere. Before that honey can be poured out, “clear cellophane wings / [are] spilled stepped on” and someone must go climbing, scouting, searching for the reason.
How much hidden honey is there in this world, served up “somewhere inside these walls”? Who has died for it; who has searched?
In The Tunnel
Our poet organizes this collection into four sections: In The Tunnel, Between Two Hands, Is That You?, and A Voice Clears. In this first section, I appreciated Cowger’s refusal to take life or death for granted. Sentimentalism is ultimately a refusal to be present to the way things really are, escaping the pain (and joy!) of reality. In “Promise Remembered” Cowger gives us a terrifying image of two lovers in a tunnel facing a train:
What is it about a promise
that resolves to outrun a train
the black smell of creosote
and the scream of steel
This one doesn’t tie up in a bow. It ends as,
…his hands loosen over her ears
an opening so tender
she will never forget
We’ve been taken deep into the tunnel, into the heart of the screeching trainwreck, and we’ve lost much. But what must it be like to feel the hands that pushed you from the tracks and cupped your ears from the noise gently open as they collapse in death? To put us in touch with that touch reminds me of the moment the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” says to her killers, “Why you’re one of my babies.” Cowger is looking for the smallest pricks of grace speaking. “Where might the Lord be in this?” she asks for us. We’re urged to keep looking at the bloody tracks to find God’s tender imprint.
This first section, beginning early with a poem about death in a train tunnel, closes with two poems about life emerging into the light from the darkness of another “tunnel”. These two poems about birth, “Notes from the First Job” and “The Clouds and the Glory,” seem to track together as:
The mouth opens
with one terrifying need
And from that first sharp intake of air
you understand hunger
you will never not love
If our time in the tunnel is about hunger and learning to love it, to welcome our “terrifying need”, Cowger begins the last poem of this section with these words:
The shock of God with us
Awakens a throe
Not unlike a baby
Gasping from gusts
And closes with:
a blanket thrown
over your head
and next to your ear
It’s ok it’s ok
Between Two Hands
I grew up deer hunting in the South, and I’ve written about that experience before—how it taught me in the most tangible terms that life is a gift bled out from the death of another. That strange and apparent juxtaposition of life coming from death took shape in my imagination long before I knew much about One who went silent as a sheep to the slaughter. “Go Ahead Do It” depicts a deer hunt:
dragging the warm buck and its crimson aurora
back to the truck I wonder who else has looked into the grey
fog of lifeless eyes trying to make sense of something
looking down from a cross
Cowger, in this second section, traces these blood-lines through our experience. How are we to hold together life with the contradictions of death? Can we hear the Slender Song even here?
Can we hear it from a cancer bed? The poem “Things I Saw In Her House,” which doesn’t shy away from a mother losing her daughter, reads:
mystifies and collects on the mirror
She towels it off in the morning stares
into the eyes of faith
and wonders what exactly that means
There are so many striking poems in this section. To touch on a few lines here and there, Cowger carefully shows us shame: “savior of a wound I created / as if I could believe you would come and love / what I hate.” There is “the brine of your iris” that sees the coming hurt (“deceit under a brow”) too lately in hindsight. She explores learned self-sabotage: “there will be such goodness / you won’t even want an apple.” Or there is the delicious taste of “Having The Last Word”, but the sweet last word, once it is spit out, lays repulsive like a slobbery piece of candy on a dirty sidewalk. Cowger’s honest look at the ways we are hurt by others and the ways we hurt ourselves is insightful, and oddly comforting; we don’t have to pretend either way. This section’s back-half leads us through losing, grieving, and remembering as death comes.
In the midst of all of this we’re given a pair of poems, “Embalming Tears.” Tears that embalm what is leaving us and perhaps tears as a balm for the bereft. In the second of the two, we watch a man getting into a fishing boat…
… the forced
hardship shoving him off to
God knows where He slouches
Cowger effortlessly blends images of tears, foot washing, fasting, arks, and the story of Noah, ending with,
no dove no olive branch
The loss we experience here “between two hands” is very real. Still, the first of these two poems ends in a kind of eucatastrophe:
One must air-dry this trembling
twist & sling the lave and as
the slough of prayers fly
back to the sky
birds arise from nowhere
That “nowhere” is somehow situated over the course of the poems as they work in conversation together, as earlier in “A Bucket Goes to the Well Empty,” Cowger says,
… The arms of a basin
Encircle the lunacy with goodness
As if perfection has always been there to hold the flaws
Is That You?
Maybe by now we’ve been trained by these poems to lean in enough to ask of whatever we encounter whether Jesus is making some appearance there, however slight? It may be that something has been loosed that may allow our senses to perceive God’s tenuous tune threading our experience incredibly the way
seeds melted from resin’s captivity
by fire irresistibly grow and grow
Our poet continues to look, even if it is with a headache from squinting. “God as Water” shows us “cheeky” surface swimmers dragged deeper by the riptide, broken-toothed, with “ragged questions” bleeding. But those “wounds ground”—in the sense of grinding a person into the ground, grounding them perhaps from the flightiness of flippancy towards God, and grounding them in something more solid, real. Cowger writes,
When God is ocean
beauty and power breaks
every perfect shell
If we go looking for the Lord, we must be willing to have our false selves shattered.
Later in this section, Cowger gives us drafting as an image for following God in prayer. Drafting is when cyclists get as close as they dare to the rear of another cyclist or vehicle to reduce drag from the wind. Racing after the bumper in front of you creates a still place within all that rushing speed while you “stare into the backside of light.” Here, in answer to God’s call, obedience, danger, self-expenditure, exhilaration, and rest coincide.
A Voice Clears
This fourth and last section begins like the three previous sections with a poem called “Weather Report”:
Top lit thunder heads
O fearful breasts of heaven
Our mouths open wide
The language seems, at this point, to intensify and to become at once more playful. “In a Strange Land” describes a tectonic shift:
Let’s call that bump a Kiss
something like Uh-Oh
as if the whole kibosh was
born for trouble sparks
morning and night
flipping over each other
and light O Dear God
light running wild
color breaking all the rules
amid the warm eloquence of heat
Holy God you command the fire
Wildness, uproar, collision, and heat all become elements of eloquence. God is speaking, and a new land is taking shape—one that is “nameless and virgin” in which we are no longer alone.
We move on into several water-themed poems. “Fast Water” puts us in the swimming pool: “there’s a rhythm / to small obediences Baptism / disguised as laps”. “Watch This” offers us an image of being washed during confession:
the weight of release
that winks of free fall
that brief but perfect sphere
of mirth descending.
And, brilliantly, Cowger offers us something of an image for metanoia as we find ourselves taking breaths
as a swimmer swimming
into the deeps
where it is hard to imagine
wanting or needing anything
a simple turn of the head.
Returning to images of birth, a couple of Advent poems appear. We run with the shepherds to the stable as they repeat the Herald’s song, saying,
Oh don’t let me forget
how the last syllable unfurled joy
only God can pronounce.
The Voice continues to clear in “The Reason for Song”: “A gauzy curtain parts / Evening’s breath eases through the window / It’s an upper room” where “His voice begins again” as Jesus washes feet and starts up a hymn
in the range of calling forth
Creation Not so loud as to scare you
just enough vibrato to enclose each note
with a ripple that will spread.
The song that we hoped to hear at the outset has penetrated the world gradually, yes, but definitely; though “not so loud as to scare” us. And it may be that the slender warbling song itself, like honey hidden in the walls, is even voiced by the voicelessness of death, as dead bees signal that secret sweetness.
This is a rich collection worth taking the time to attend to carefully. And it’s good to remember that poems, like persons, won’t be solved. They resist the possessiveness and boxiness of comprehension and call for the hospitality and affection of apprehension. They withdraw when we make demands and put the screws on them; but they cock their little heads and tip-toe toward us when we wait very still, listening.
Someone taught me to swim as a very small child. At the pool, there were these very tiny insects called Sweat Bees (we called them Sweetbees). They skitted about, stopping to hover. Our instructor promised that if we were still enough and held out our forefinger like a tiny landing pad, the Sweetbees would sometimes alight and dally on our skin. It can happen, and when it does you feel the slightest eddies of air against the nerve-rich tips of your open, waiting hands.
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.