I’ve enjoyed posting poetry series themed around the Christian year in the past couple of years (see “Poetry for Lent” and “Poetry for Easter“). I will continue that with a series called “Poetry for Ordinary Time.” Ordinary time includes two sections of the church year between Christmastide and Lent and Easter and Advent. The word “ordinary” here derives from the word ordinal by which the weeks are counted. Still, ordinary time does serve an opportunity to embrace the ordinary spaces and places of our lives, and the themes of the poems will express this.
Here is Scott Cairns’ poem “Idiot Psalms.” Scott Cairns is a contemporary American poet with nine poetry collections, who also is a librettist, memoirist, and translator. Cairns is the program director of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program.
A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by Jew’s harp.
O God Belovéd if obliquely so,
dimly apprehended in the midst
of this, the fraught obscuring fog
of my insufficiently capacious ken,
Ostensible Lover of our kind—while
that I might glimpse once more
Your shadow in the land, avail
for me, a second time, the sense
of dire Presence in the pulsing
hollow near the heart.
Once more, O Lord, from Your enormity incline
your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy
of immolation, if You will.
A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.
O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper
of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent
of energies both appalling and unobserved,
do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen
or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant
to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,
nor narrowing his affective sympathies
neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul.
Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue
to enjoy my morning run among the lilies
and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might
delight in this and every evening’s intercourse
with the woman you have set beside me.
Make me to awaken daily with a willingness
to roll out readily, accompanied
by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,
the idiot’s undying expectation,
despite the evidence.
A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously
slow to act, should You incline to fix
Your generous attentions for the moment
to the narrow scene of this our appointed
tedium, should You—once our kindly
secretary has duly noted which of us
is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused,
You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say
about so little. Among these other mediocrities,
Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how
his slow and meager worship might appear
from where You endlessly attend our dreariness.
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off
from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here
amid the motions, the discussions, the several
questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots.
Isaak’s penitential psalm, unaccompanied.
Again, and yes again, O Ceaseless Tolerator
of our bleaking recurrences, O Forever Forgoing
Foregone (sans conclusion), O Inexhaustible,
I find my face against the floor, and yet again
my plea escapes from unclean lips, and from a heart
caked in and constricted by its own soiled residue.
You are forever, and forever blessed, and I aspire
one day to slip my knot and change things up,
to manage at least one late season sinlessly,
to bow before you yet one time without chagrin.
Previous poems in this series:
- C. S. Lewis, “Evensong”
- Tomas Tranströmer, “Open and Closed Spaces”
- James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation”
- Denise Levertov, “Living”
- Wang Wei, “Morning, Sailing into Xinyang”
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”
- Mary Oliver, “The Kingfisher”
- Osip Mandelstam, “Consider the River”
- Kwame Dawes, “Peach Picking”
- Anna Kamieńska, “A Prayer That Will Be Answered”
- Judah al-Harizi, “The Sun”
- Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
- Tu Fu, “Clear After Rain”
- John Milton, “On His Blindness”
- Rainer Maria Rilke, “It’s Possible”
- St. John of the Cross, “Living Flame of Love”
- Jacqueline Osherow, “Autumn Psalm”
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall”
- Marilyn Nelson, “How I Discovered Poetry”
- T. S. Eliot, excerpt from Choruses from ‘The Rock’, II
- Luci Shaw, “Arrangement in Space and Time”
- Malcolm Guite, “A Sonnet for All Saints Day”