Annie Dillard says he’s one of the best poets alive. And on Saturday, I sat around a table with seventeen other participants at a spiritual writing workshop hosted by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi, learning from him. His name is Scott Cairns, and he teaches at the University of Missouri. His poetry and nonfiction have been included in Best American Spiritual Writing and other anthologies, and his poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Repubic, Image, Poetry and other journals. So, how did I find myself in this intimate group of spiritual writers on Saturday?
It began sometime last year, when I walked into Father John Troy Mashurn’s office at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. Father John is our pastor. His coffee table is often laden with beautiful books from monasteries all over the world, some with beautiful iconography. No matter what spiritual urgency leads me to his office, my eyes always scan the table when I first sit down. On that particular day, they fell on a small volume of poetry by Scott Cairns—Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. Picking it up, I asked Father John, “What’s this?”
“Oh, that’s a book of poetry. Cairns is Orthodox… he took a number of mystical writings and adapted them in verse. You’d probably enjoy it, although I prefer the original texts myself.”
Thumbing through, I find familiar ground, like one of my favorites, Saint Isaac the Syrian. “Can I borrow this?”
“Sure. He’s also written a book about his pilgrimage to Mount Athos. I actually like that one better.”
The conversation held no surprises. Father John holds tenaciously to the words of Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers of the Church, and doesn’t like people messing with them too much. We both share a deep love for Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, for example. Many years ago Father John shared Saint Nikolai’s Prayers by the Lake with me. They are probably the most beautiful spiritual poems I’ve ever read. So, it’s not that he doesn’t like poetry. I think it’s more that he prefers the original to an adaptation.
That conversation was on my mind as I listened to Cairns on Saturday at the workshop. Although he spoke about various aspects of poetry, his emphasis on a form which I wasn’t familiar with made the biggest impression on me. It’s called ekphrasis. It’s a Greek word, and it refers to poetry that’s written about a prior text or a work of art. Cairns said ekphrastic poetry should “give voice to an artifact… making meaning with narrative about something the piece of art might be saying.” Here’s another link with some examples. And yet another.
Later, when I was having lunch with my friend, Michelle Bright, (in the center in the picture) a graduate of the journalism program at Ole Miss, I found that this is a fairly well-known entity—Michelle had a teacher in junior high school who taught her students about ekphrastic poetry. I was impressed and a bit envious. Another of our writing group friends, Patti Brummett, also joined us for lunch. Patti is just a freshman at Ole Miss, but spent her junior and senior years of high school at the Mississippi School for the Arts in Brookhaven, where she focused on literary art. She blew us all away with her lyrical prose writing at the Yoknapatawpha Writing Workshop back in June. One night, at open mic, she gave a performance akin to da-da poetry, keeping the beat with quiet finger snapping. She could have been a beat poet in Greenwich Village in the 60s.
During the workshop, Cairns read examples of poetry—his and others—written about passages of Scripture. He was drawn to Judaism early in his spiritual journey, “because of the Rabbinic attitude towards language.” There’s a genre called Midrash, which Cairns describes as “humble and earnest,” which “presses the different Biblical passages for new revelation.” He said that Christ’s parabolic explications of Scriptural truth are very much like this. But, I’m thinking, Christ can do what he wants with Scriptures because, well, He’s the Son of God, right? But for mere mortals to mess with God’s word in this way…. I’m not sure how I feel about it. But I listened with an open mind as he continued.
“Language not only operates retrospectively, but also operates prospectively.” He talked about how we “write to discover—we collaborate with God for the future.” Using the modern day image of computer links that we click on to open another page, he said: “Opening the Scriptures, opening the Word, is like pre-historic hypertext, where each word has that kind of agency, to open another page.”
The concept of “opening” intrigues me. Cairns spoke of its use in Scriptures, like in the Gospel of Luke (24) when Jesus encounters two disciplines on the road to Emmaus and later one of the disciples says, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
He “opened the Scriptures to them.” In the Orthodox Church, only a priest can preach the homily (sermon) in the Divine Liturgy. I once asked why, and was told that since the homily is supposed to be about the Gospel reading for the day, only a priest can preach on the Gospel. It’s a sacramental aspect of the Liturgy, I think, and this reading and preaching on the Gospel is called the “washing of the water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:25).
Remembering that Cairns is, like me, a convert to Orthodoxy, I couldn’t help but wonder how our Church would view some of his thinking. Sitting around a table with mostly (exclusively?) Episcopal writers, I thought about how the two Churches view art in different ways. I felt a sort of freedom in their company that I sometimes don’t feel in my own church. It’s not that I want to make a change—I love my church—it’s just that I felt such camaraderie there. I was sitting next to Taylor Moore, the rector of St. Peter’s. Taylor was dressed in blue jeans and a tweed-ish blazer, looking for all the world like an author at a book signing. (Orthodox priests, on the other hand, always wear either their black cassock or a black suit with a collar.) Next to Taylor was his wife, Nancy, whom I met at a Creative Nonfiction Conference in 2008, when we were both in Dinty Moore’s critique session together. Nancy and I had an immediate bond… and I don’t think it was just because we are married to ministers. We’re both artists, writing memoir. Her husband, Taylor, was given a Lily Foundation Grant to travel and read poetry. And some of the money from the grant enabled him to invited Cairns to lead a workshop at his parish. I love the way the Episcopal Church honors art.
As Cairns spoke, I thought about one of my favorite books, The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen, in which Nouwen has a chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son, sending him on a long spiritual adventure. His reflections were in prose, rather than poetry, but I think his interactions with the art were ekphrastic.
In another of Nouwen’s books, Beyond the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons, he chooses four famous Russian icons: the Holy Trinity, the Virgin of Vladimir, the Savior of Zvenigorod, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and spends time with each of them in an interactive way.
And so I posed the question that’s been on my mind for some time, to Scott, at the workshop: “As an iconographer, I’ve thought about trying to write prose reflections, or maybe even poetry, about my own personal encounter with icons. As Orthodox Christians, how should that be approached, or should it be?”
This is where Scott explained more about our interaction with art, and the importance of synergy—where we work together with the Church and Christ to bring about redemption. I was thrilled to learn that Cairns has written, and published, a poem about icons. “Two Icons,” which is in his volume Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (which has icons on the cover.) “Two Icons” is his reflection on the icons of the Nativity of Christ and the Dormition of the Mother of God. I read the poem later, after purchasing the book at Square Books and getting Scott to sign it for me. “Two Icons” was truly a gift to me. It’s difficult to capture Cairns’ art with just an excerpt from this poem, but here’s a taste: (please get the book and read the entire poem… and all his poems!)
“…even here the radiant
compass of affection
is announced, that even here our several
histories converge and slip,
just briefly out of time. Which is much of what
an icon works as well,
and this one offers up a broad array
of separate narratives
whose temporal relations quite miss the point…."
I’m not sure how I will proceed in my own efforts at ekphrasis, but I will proceed.
I actually made a stab at this a few years ago, but I didn’t know it was ekphrasis. I had fallen in love with a painting at an art auction on a cruise boat. It was by an Armenian painter, Martiros Manoukian, who also did icons. The painting was an angel, with half of its face and body done very much in the style of a Byzantine icon, and the other half in abstract. The “iconic angel” is holding a paintbrush, and appears to be painting the abstract side of himself. The name of the painting was, “Yesterday, Tomorrow.” I asked the broker, who knew the artist, what Manoukian’s interpretation of the work might be. She said she thought Manoukian was trying to capture the spirit of art in Russia, and how it’s changing. While I found that interesting, it was not at all the same thing I felt as I gazed at the painting. Please indulge me here, as I share my “ekphrastic poem” about this painting. It’s not good writing (I have no training in poetry) but it will illustrate, I think, this idea of interacting with art in the way that Scott was teaching us on Saturday. I’m including a picture of the painting that I got off the internet later.
The Angel's Shadow
©Susan Cushman, 2005
Bodiless creatures without human form
Have never had shadows
Have always been bright
In the light
Of the Son.
Like Byzantine icons of angels and saints
Of Christ and His Mother
And others whose fight
For the right
Has been won.
Jungian wisdom has taught us to own
Our shadows, our dark sides
To help us delight
In our plight
'Til we're done.
Until we have faces, until we can see
We still need the contrast
To balance the light
It just might
Help us run.
Restoring the image that broke when we fell
Artists and poets must
Work through the night
And the blight
Of each one.
Martiros' angel did not feel complete
So he painted his shadow
And then he felt right
For his flight
Holding our opposites, loving both sides
Manoukian teaches us
To make it right
Not to fight
But be one.
At one point in the workshop, Scott made a reference to Rilke, whose poetry I love. In my research for this blog post, I ran across an article, ironically by a woman named Jenifer Cushman, called, “Beyond Ekphrasis: Logos and Eikon in Rilke’s Poetry.” Rainer Maria Rilke was greatly influenced by the Orthodox Church in Russia, and especially icons.
A brief excerpt from (Jenifer) Cushman’s article:
“The claim that Rilke’s poems can be read like Orthodox icons assumes a deeper kinship between the written and visual arts than simple ekphrasis…. The potential for art to impact life directly links theories of ekphrasis to Orthodox icon theology, for the function of the icon is to make the scriptural word palpable, to occasion a change in perception, and ultimately the behavior of the believer. It was this aspect of Orthodoxy in particular that appealed to the young Rilke, charged with enthusiasm for spirituality he attributed to the so-called ‘Slavic soul.’”
Cairns didn’t really talk much about music, but I was thinking about it as he spoke. Especially about one of my favorite CDs, Kris Delmhorst’s, “Strange Conversation.” This album seems to me an ekphrasis-in-reverse, in that she takes the works of well-known poets like Herman Broch, e.e. Cummings and George Eliot, and interprets them as song. When Cairns spoke about ekphrastic poetry as “listening in on the prior conversation and then joining it,” I immediately thought about Delmorst’s song, “The Invisible Choir,” adapted from George Eliot’s poem, “The Choir Invisible. First, I’ll give you an ecerpt from the Eliot poem:
“This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose magic is the gladness of the world.”
-George Eliot (1867)
And now, here are the lyrics to Delmhorst’s adaptation:
lyrics adapted from: George Eliot, "The Choir Invisible"
Oh may I join that invisible choir
I want to join that invisible choir
Made of those sweet immortal voices
That lift our hearts up higher
I want to live after I die
I want to live after I die
I want to make a bit of beauty
And leave a little light behind
Or be the balm to someone’s sadness, the song for someone’s gladness,
A cup of strength to someone in their fight
Or maybe sweeten an existence, inspire a persistence,
Or breathe the breath that makes the spark of love burn bright
Oh may I reach the heaven most high
I want to reach that heaven most high
And be a little star a shining
In someone’s darkest night.
I have these lyrics printed off and taped to the wall by my computer. I read them almost every day, kind of like a prayer. They are a reminder to myself that my life, and more specifically my writing, can be, as Delmhorst says, “the balm to someone’s sadness, the song for someone’s gladness, a cup of strength to someone in their fight.”
Scott Cairns and the dear group of writers at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi, were that for me on Saturday. They were indeed “the song for someone’s gladness,” and they did, indeed, “sweeten an existence” and “inspire a persistence.”
And let me not forget to thank my dear friend, Neil White, for inviting me to this intimate gathering. The workshop wasn’t really open to the public, but Neil said he invited me “because you’re Orthodox and you’re a good writer.” I’m humbled by Neil’s words, and grateful for his friendship. It was great being with him and his wife, Debbie on Saturday. We enjoyed a stroll around the square after the workshop, and I am re-charged for the work at hand, whether it be the next chapter of my memoir-in-progress, another essay, or…. Maybe an ephrastic poem about one of my favorite icons. Hmmmm
And now for a postscript to this (already long) post: at The Maker's Market in front of the Lyric Theater, I met Dawn Delatte (yes, that's her real name!) and purchased the lovely "cityscape" votive holders from her. Here we are at the Market. We became Facebook "friends" and I learned that Dawn and her husband have been visiting Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. What a small world. I felt a bond with Dawn, instantly. I'm sure her art was part of it, but a big part, I believe, was her spirit. Maybe those are the same thing. Anyway, It was a gorgeous day in Oxford, and I'm thankful for the writing workshop and friends, both old and new.
And here are the cityscape votives on our mantle.