To Hint Of Religion, Or Not To Hint Of Religion (Norman Costa)
For the non-believer, should a hint of religion in a poem, or even an obvious reference, detract from the appreciation of the poetry? The issue came up regarding a poem by Jim Culleny, “Caresses and Cuffs.” He posted it on 3Quarks Daily.
Here's the poem:
Caresses and Cuffs
Silence thick as her stews sometimes
filled my grandmother’s house
but for the cars on 15
hissing toward Picatinny
on a wet night
big black Packards or Buicks
heavy as a hard life,
Chevy’s wide whitewalls
spinning over asphalt on a two-lane
before the interstate sliced through
a table in her living room
cluttered with snaps of Jim and Jack
Howard Frank Velma Ruth
Gladys Leo Leroy Pat; the lot of them
in by-gone black and white
mugging hugging beaming being
young as they’d been for the ages
for their tiny taste of time
their vitality a temporal joke
their smooth skin taut as the sky
on a blue blue daya pillow-piled day-bed
against the front wall under a window
kitty-corner from the brown coal stove
radiating from October
till the geometry of earth and sun
more befitted blood & breath
fat chairs stuffed as her turkeys
on big Thanksgivings
all in this mist of imagination
as real as a pin prick, as
bright and huge as a moon,
crisp as frost
—memory’s a terrible and tender thing
the way it claws and cradles the day
its shadows and light shifting
like shapes of an optical illusion
filled with mercies and accusations
—the caresses and cuffs ofthe lord.
by Jim Culleny11/27/11
A reader commented, “"Tiny taste of time" is good. Not too keen on the last line. One of your best....I just don't like the hint of religion there. But overall, a very tight and rhythmic poem. I prefer it to a lot of the poems in the New Yorker.” I liked it too, and enjoyed reading it aloud to myself.
I don't think the last line, “...the caresses and cuffs of the lord,” is much of a reference to religion. Jim responded to the comment by saying that the lower case 'lord' should not be taken too literally. I suppose there are some very heavy handed religious poems that might put off sincere believers, let alone non-believers. In my view, good religious poetry can be appreciated, even admired, by non-believers. Here are some examples.
"The Hound of Heaven," by Francis Thompson (1859 - 1907,) is one that comes to mind. For some it is a very Christian work among religious poems. For others it is the journey from the denial of the goodness in ourselves, to a surrendering embrace of our own divine spark. Richard Burton does a wonderful reading of it on the Internet.
Here are the first and last stanzas:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat--and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet--
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
...Jumping to the last verses...
Now of that long pursuit Comes on at hand the bruit;That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
"And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing,
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught," He said,"And human love needs human meriting,
How hast thou merited--Of all man's clotted clay rhe dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms.
But just that thou might'st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for the at home;
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!"
Halts by me that footfall;
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstreched caressingly?
"Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me."
The 23rd Psalm in the Hebrew bible (KJV) is a beautiful, poetic, and moving expression of faith, that can be appreciated by the non-believer.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
The Song of Solomon in the Hebrew bible is all about the poetry of love. It is viewed as a expression of deep feelings between lovers, earthy and divine. In this famous selection from the first chapter, the ancient imagery is less compelling to modern readers, but we can get the idea.
The Bride and the Bridegroom
I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.
While the King sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Enge'di.
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.
One does not have to be religious or a believer to be touched by the poetry, the beauty, and the deep human sentiment in the greatest blessing of the Hebrew bible:
The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace."
--Numbers 6: 24-26