Margaret Edson’s play-turned-movie Wit tells the story of Vivian Bearing, an uncompromising John Donne scholar whose bout with terminal breast cancer forces her to face the deep truths of the poet’s work that heretofore she had only used for her career advancement. This brilliant scholar, on facing her own mortality, found that all her accomplishments were powerless to protect her from the truth of herself, that she was not self-sustaining and try as she might her words could not stop the inexorable march of time and her concomitant death.
With this unflinching self-knowledge, however, comes an unexpected grace and better apprehension of the unfailing and boundless love of God, captured poignantly in a moving scene where Vivian’s late professor visits her in the hospital during one of her many rounds of chemo. Professor Ashford reads to Vivian, not John Donne, but The Runaway Bunny, a gift for her five-year-old grandson. This “little allegory of the soul” recounts a mother bunny’s insistent love for her wayward child, which reminds Ashford that wherever we may try to hide, God will find us.
Vivian’s impulse to hide her vulnerabilities and to erect a self-protective wall of pretense is all-too-human. We are but poor creatures, saddled with frailties and limitations that are so at odds with our latent awareness of our rightful inheritance of immortality and glory. Like Edson, poet Scott Cairns creatively exposes this seeming paradox and reveals to us the One who alone can reconcile them. The author of nine poetry collections and other writings, Cairns draws on his Orthodox faith to develop his accessible yet profoundly insightful works.
To be honest, reading Cairns’ poetry can be a bit painful. He sees human psychology so clearly and depicts it so vividly that it can’t help but feel a bit personal. “Possible Answers to Prayer,” for example, imagines God’s response to a typical person’s prayer. Taking on the voice of God, the poem skillfully balances an exposure of the supplicant’s hypocrisies and obtuseness and a celebration of God’s unwarranted favor:
Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
We wince, being revealed as the petty creatures we can be, but Cairns’ humor softens the blow. Ultimately there’s no mocking tone here; the poet clearly recognizes he is in the same position as his readers. The poem’s depiction of our human faithlessness, manifest even in our prayers, sharply contrasts with its firm conviction about our ever-faithful, loving and gracious God. Bruce Edwards calls Cairns’ mode of poetry, “comic apocalypse,” where the text “appears to offer merely a clinical catalog of the modern world’s sins but then suddenly redeems that world with a breathtaking reaffirmation of the possibility of transcendent faith.”
The form reinforces this message, with controlling dashes emphasizing what’s off-set, our less flattering thoughts we try to deny and perhaps are sometimes unconscious of. They are still present, known by the God who hears our cries and is fully aware of how dire our situation is—even more dire than we realize. But in that full knowledge of who we are, God stands ready to forgive:
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
Cairns’ work is prophetic, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. As Jennifer Coker argues, “The significance of Cairns’s work seems to lie in his efforts to retrieve some of the important subject matter and bring moral urgency back to poetry.” Many of his poems call readers to repent, not out of shame or self-loathing but out of the good news that awaits such surrender to a good God. It is in Cairns’ control of voice and tone that this thematic purpose finds its most striking power. Bruce Edwards contends that Cairns promotes faith without propagandizing, “offering a panoply of poems about angels, dark spirits, and still darker selves that reveal all manner of betrayals, redemptions, dreams deferred, and hopes aligned.”
Cairns’ 2014 collection, Idiot Psalms perhaps best exemplifies this characteristic of his work. Many of the entries in this collection are marked “a psalm of Isaak,” with some distinguishing epigraph like “penitential” or “accompanied by baying hounds.” These poems marry an ancient form, imbued with Judeo-Christian language and themes; they intermingle general modern-day concerns with the autobiographical, as Cairns took the name of Saint Isaak on his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. But these are no mere personal poems; like C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, they paint an emotional portrait of humanity’s foibles and hang-ups, our resistance to the bountiful life God provides.
In “Idiot Psalm 3,” for example, the speaker cries out to God from a mundane business meeting, recognizing how trivial human scenarios must sometimes seem while longing for something more. The speaker calls God a “Master both invisible and notoriously / slow to act” yet seeks deliverance from mundanity and the hopelessness he feels overcoming him:
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.
These poems are not intended merely as statements, but rather as performance, working on readers as they enter into the text. Mary Kenagy Mitchell, of the journal Image, identifies this approach as “sacramental poetics,” but Cairns prefers to use the designation mystical poetics: “[W]hen we come to appreciate that our words have power, presence, and agency to shape our persons . . . we get a glimpse of the inexhaustible One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Echoes of this sensibility recur in “Draw Near,” which lyrically renders the essence of Cairns’ poetic approach. Through enticing language and beguiling sights and sounds, the speaker invites readers to assent to the poem’s final lines, to embrace for themselves the truth found therein:
I have no sense of what this means to you, so little
sense of what to make of it myself, save one lit glimpse
of how we live and move, a more expansive sense in Whom.
Cairns may use his poetry to speak to other people, but the ceaseless object of his worship is God, God whose “beauty woos us to himself,” as Cairns once expressed: “One doesn’t so much create it or illuminate it as partake of it. Thereafter, one participates, collaborates, in its endless development.” In God, beauty and love are intertwined, and we can get intimations of this symbiosis by those like Cairns who have been caught up in it.