My late friend and poetry mentor, Saul Bennett, though deeply immersed in his Jewish heritage that began with his boyhood in Sunnyside, Queens during World War Two, loved no poet as much as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the little Jesuit priest of North Wales and later Dublin who composed poetry largely in private that would prove to be startlingly unique when published three decades after his death in 1889 at age forty five. In particular, Saul revered Hopkins’s first great poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which the Jesuit wrote as an act of religious calling in response to the drowning of five nuns exiled from Germany aboard a steamer that sank in the Thames River in the winter of 1875. At the time Hopkins was thirty one and ten years past his youthful infatuation with poetry that he’d renounced to devote himself fully to God. But this tragedy that he read about in the newspaper raised questions about faith that he felt compelled to answer by composing a poem in a radical new style today makes Hopkins one of our classic poets. Saul, himself, responded strongly to certain tragedies, especially the Holocaust, but also the burning of the General Slocum steamer in the East River in 1904, a catastrophe that took more than a thousand lives on the very day that Saul’s father was born. As Saul often told people about his becoming a poet in middle age, he’d been “shocked into poetry” by the sudden death of his first daughter at age twenty four. For him, making poems was serious business, a way of grappling with the senseless in our grief stricken but God infused world. (Hopkins’s odd cadences, an effort to enliven poetry that had grown dull from traditional meters, may have inspired Saul, as well, for he wrote in his own odd, ethnic speech patterns of 1940s Sunnyside, Queens.) At the time of his fatal heart attack, another sudden and senseless tragedy, Saul was composing his paean to Hopkins, an episodic poem perhaps inspired by “The Wreck” that imagined Hopkins mingling with the Jews in Liverpool and later sailing to America.
Yet, as a casual reader of Hopkins, which is all I can claim to be, what strikes me aren’t the pangs of grief that made Saul’s poems so affecting, but the joyous feeling of overwhelming plenitude, the ecstatic appreciation of the natural world that buzzes with more sensation that we can take in, save through poetry. Is this electrifying bonding with nature what Hopkins understood God to be? As a priest he worked in slums and didn’t like what he saw, “the hollowness” of “civilization” and the future as “black.” He wasn’t especially happy with his own life and regretted not having readers for his poems. He may have been bipolar. Yet in his poetry, as Louis Untermeyer once wrote, “To Hopkins everything was happy and magnificent. The world was not merely colorful but prodigal, ‘barbarous in beauty.’ Nature was a divine turmoil, and God was an eternal exuberance.” For example:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
….For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
……..For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim:
Fresh-charcoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
….Landscapes plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plow;
……..And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
….Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
……..With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Lynn Domina’s poems in Framed in Silence sound nothing like Hopkins’s. Though rich in knowledge and detail her writing is straightforward. Yet as I pondered what she meant by God in this book about her faith, I felt that same sense of joy taken in ample natural plenitude. Born and raised in Michigan, graduate schooled in Alabama and on Long Island, she left the metropolitan life years ago to settle in as an English professor at SUNY Delhi in the northwestern Catskills, a small town in the rolling countryside that mixes what remains of the dairy industry with weekend country homes. To a Woodstocker and ex-Hobokenite like me, Delhi feels like the rural heartland of America that’s rather scary in its pleasantness, but Lynn seemed right at home on the day that I visited to speak to her classes. She teaches, she gardens, she raises her daughter with her partner, she doesn’t even seem to mind English Department meetings. And her poems are infused with appreciation. Clearly, she enjoys science which has expanded our understanding of this universe that God makes in the “Creation Sequence” that opens Framed in Silence. Here’s one that tickles my fancy because I’ve written a fanciful futuristic epic poem in which I’ve taken the liberty of inventing my own sea monsters. I needn’t have bothered, given what’s already in the oceans.
Great Sea Monsters
Here be dragons maps would insist
after a time, testifying to human desire
for belief in the superhuman, supernatural.
After every dragon and vampire and werewolf was slain, pranksters
created a new monster, cast-off plastic
gliding across Loch Ness, it’s photograph
so convincing that believers refused
apostasy even after Spurling’s confession. God loves
a good natured prank, the spotted wobbegong for instance,
a flat olive and yellowish shark flecked with white
patches like eczema, lazing against the sea bottom, invisible
if not transparent—nothing like glass fish—but camouflaged
so thrillingly that lobsters and octopi nuzzle up
to its flapping snout, not a second left for good-bye.
Or the shovelnose guitarfish, so peculiar it must be
dubbed with a double metaphor, neither quite apt,
its snout more reminiscent of a maul than a shovel, its scowl
evoking no music, even poorly played. Or the freshwater butterflyfish
available only in central Africa, looking like God
refused to waste a pile of leftover parts, or the bushymouth
catfish, or the longish white spookfish, its torso
so irregular that one wonders how
it manages forward motion.
These creatures amuse and terrify, their abject
defiance of taxonomy cozy with nightmare. Even God,
gazing at the first blue-ringed octopus,
shuddered and turned away. Yet God breathed
life into cephalopods and gastropods and set them afloat
to live and mate and die. And if a great monster
mating requires new aesthetics, what mating does not?
And if their young feel squeamishly delicate,
whose young do not? God gave them
murky seas, ineluctable mystery, permission
to haunt each edge of the known world.
All eleven of the poems in “Creation Sequence” are stuffed with marvels. It’s as if reading The New York Times Science section has become a religious experience. Yet how are we to live amid such largess, being as small and preoccupied and distracted as we inevitably are in our daily lives? What I find refreshing in the rest of Lynn’s book is how little of a missionary she is. She understands the vanity of conceiving of God as an ally to promote your own opinions about life. God should be, first and foremost, a corrective for yourself, not a tool against others. In an amusing poem, “Not Exactly What You Had In Mind,” she even imagines God as the whitest of white trash, a fat woman in plastic sandals and flowered muumuu smoking a cigarette in a chaise lounge, the slovenly antithesis of good church ladies everywhere. Be careful whom you claim God to be! But in one poem, “The Quality of Mercy,” Lynn does remind us of the absolute power of forgiveness. And in many she urges us to pause every now and again to savor nature’s abundance. Here’s one with appetite as theology.
Discussing Luther After the Episcopal Church Supper
As soon as Fr. Hartt mentions fruits of faith,
my mind floats to an unpruned
apple tree beyond my garden, the apples
not buds yet, the tree neglected
generations. Faith assures apples will ripen,
so it must be experience that insists
they’ll remain hard knobs, inedible wormy balls.
Still, they draw deer, and the deer
draw my gaze, their alert ears, velvety necks
I wish to stroke just once, their smooth haunches, grace
infusing each stride. Once, coming upon a buck
as I strolled through mist and he titled his head
at my step, I felt
mystical. Most often, though, I notice
only their peculiar grape-sized scat
heaped in squat pyramids beneath the tree
and wonder Why must I see
Come June, I imagine they nuzzle
the clump of wild strawberries that wreaths
a decaying stump. Perhaps, though I have never seen
such zeal, they push through thorns,
trampling dead canes to tongue overripe
raspberries from their nubs. Were I wild
as deer or rabbit, I would suck fruit
from its stem, too, the juice
staining my muzzle, dripping onto my forelegs.
In one story, Jesus cursed
the fig tree for its failure
to bear fruit out of season.
A bit harsh, though doesn’t hunger
shove each of us past reason?
Dare I demand a god’s accounting?
I have never tasted
fresh fig, never split its skin
with my teeth, peeling away sweet flesh—
perhaps such flavor excuses rash oaths.
Nor have I eaten litchi, papaw, papaya,
breadfruit, casaba, or huckleberry.
I could vow to savor
every fruit, grainy pear, creamy avocado, bitter kumquat,
earn my way to heaven
one luscious bite at a time.
Faith, works, one must be
the melon I split open,
one the chunk I offer between fingertips,
urging, here, taste this.