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Devotion is a word that bespeaks privacy, a silent colloquy between a present devotee and an absent source. When presented in public, devotion could be called an exhibition of faith or doubt, an airing of the struggle that may be inherent in any observance of the sacred. Devotional poetry, a most public display, has enacted this exhibition from various motivations and with various results—think of George Herbert’s depressions and ecstasies, John Donne’s sacred erotics, or Walt Whitman’s gnostic communion with the God within. In contemporary American poetry, this devotional tradition is alive and well, as evidenced by three major anthologies published in the last two years: Poems of Devotion, edited by Luke Hankins (2012), Before the Door of God, edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson (2013), and A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler (2012).
All of these books delve into spiritual life and ritual, but the devotional mode persists also in the hands of contemporary poets not concerned with private practices or exhibitions of faith. Among them it has evolved, with Emily Dickinson as its model, into a kind of postmodern mysticism at the center of which is an interrogation of both the sacred unknown and language itself. These poets are not necessarily motivated by religious concerns—think of Joanna Klink’s rapturous address to a departed lover in Raptus (2010), Susan Stewart’s inescapable minor gods in Red Rover (2008), or Dan Beachy-Quick’s devotional inquiry into the self in Circle’s Apprentice (2011). More recently, and with great insight and beauty, Brian Teare takes up this mode in Companion Grasses, a naturalist devotion to the Northern California landscape.
To better understand this devotional poetic, take a look at Dickinson’s “My period had come for Prayer,” a poem that neatly illustrates the mode of address that many contemporary poets with a penchant for the unknown are turning to:
My period had come for Prayer—
No other Art—would do—
My Tactics missed a rudiment—
Creator—Was it you?God grows above—so those who pray
And so I stepped upon the North
To see this Curious Friend—His House was not—no sign had He—
By Chimney—nor by Door
Could I infer his Residence—
Vast Prairies of AirUnbroken by a Settler—
Were all that I could see—
Infinitude—Had’st Thou no Face
That I might look on Thee?The Silence condescended—
Creation stopped—for Me—
But awed beyond my errand—
I worshipped—did not “pray”—
The first three stanzas outline the poet’s failed attempt to communicate with the divine. After linking “Prayer” and “Art”—an explicit connection between the poem itself and the act of devotion—the speaker admits that these poetic “Tactics” do not reach the “Creator,” the divinity. Thus, in the next stanza, the poet begins a more metaphysical, transcendent quest, turning upward and outward, ascending “Horizons” and stepping “upon the North” to find her unknown and “Curious,” yet intimate, deific force.
This effort also fails. In the third stanza, Dickinson’s speaker is left alone in a higher landscape of absence. Everything about this figure’s “Residence” is negatively defined: his house is made of “not”; there are only “Vast Prairies” (wonderfully close to prayers) of nothing. The speaker’s pleading question in the face of “Infinitude”—a typical devotional interrogative—initiates the breakthrough in the poem’s final quatrain. As the “Curious Friend” remains voiceless and unknowable, “Silence” is what causes creation to stop for the speaker, inspiring awe and transcendence. The final line concludes the poem by complicating the art of prayer; the quotation marks around the word “pray” suggest the poet is rejecting a received understanding of the act of devotional utterance. Instead she worships, in the sense that she is attentive and devoted to a spiritual force outside herself, but she does not pray, in the traditional sense of prayer as a requisite practice of faith.
The desire to sing is the devotional desire, the desire to make contact with the absence beyond.
This difference is where contemporary devotional poetry resides. In Dickinson’s model it is an elevated utterance directed outward toward a divine absence, a sublime silence, and made in an attempt to know the world beyond perception (what Paul Celan termed “the real” in opposition to “the actual”). The addressed absence need not be a commonly recognized divine figure, as Dickinson shows with her undefined “Thou” and her undeniably divine “Nature”: “Nature and God—I neither knew / Yet Both so well knew me . . . like Executors / Of My identity.”
Teare has paid close attention to Dickinson throughout his career; he has long been attuned to the ways her observations of the material world are troubled by her devotional connection to what lies beyond it. Teare has elsewhere observed how Dickinson “knits into her grammar the impossibility of the material world remaining consonant with theological readings of it; her dashes juxtapose materiality with abstraction, here yoking Eternity to image, there keeping the planes of matter and Ideal from touching.” This knitting of impossibility to presence, this yoking of Eternity, is precisely what Teare himself does in Companion Grasses: “it takes one / sentence two grammars to / marry the mutable to fundament.”
This is a book vast with Prairies—of Air, yes, but also of scrub, invasive weeds, wildflowers, and ocean, the prairies of Northern California. Like “My period had come for Prayer—,” Companion Grasses enacts a devotional journey—recalling the long poetic tradition of wandering and versifying in the wild—that leads from the poet-speaker’s expectations of the sublime to transcendental failure: in the face of divine absence, creation unutterably stops. Teare’s journey from observation to transcendence is explicit in the ending movement of the first poem of the collection, “White Graphite”:
watery dense deep
stipple above sandafter rain, sky trues
its blues, the reala profusion : seaweed
reek, the pink shatterof crabshells, lupine
fat in dune grass,surf sounding long
before I smell salt :matter a mere shift
in limits, even skin’sa trick of the liminal :
touch here & I giveway to elsewhere :
Following fast from some beautifully clipped and sonic descriptions of Limantour Beach (along the Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco), the speaker comes to realize “the real” is in abundance in the beach landscape. After more observations of the beach, its seaweed and dune grasses, Teare suppresses this Romantic tendency toward ornate perceptual description by referring to everything he sees as simply “matter”—a “shift” or speck along the liminal border between here and beyond, the real and the sensory, absence and presence. The poem ends abruptly, with the speaker’s devotion to the beach cut short as he gives “way to elsewhere,” a landscape of absence so profound, it permits the speaker no return.
In “The Very Air”—one of the final poems in the crown of loose sonnets in the middle of the collection, “Transcendental Grammar Crown”—the poet-speaker describes this sublime failure, this “elsewhere,” in a similar manner:
but we tire of spirit sightstriving always forelsewhere as we areso much among phenomena Godloses luster
This kind of spiritual fatigue along the devotional journey is to be expected—“elsewhere” is a large void and many poets are incapable of walking it. Teare’s poems also argue that the process of observing “phenomena” dilutes the poet’s sense of the divine. He therefore endeavors to create a devotional mode that is characterized by sight that is not seeing, a sight that is more “site” than vision: “To write sight is itself / site’s re-vision a visitor’s / signature.” He reiterates this effort in several poems: “Rocky, uneven, enclosed by chaparral then opening onto pasture, our sightline belonged solely to path. . . . Thus concentrated, vision became more”; and “vision is question / & response is also twice sight besets the trees that are memory also.” The attitude that vision need become “more” than mere sight is not unlike that which William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, or Robert Duncan exhibit: a distrust of or dissatisfaction with the poet’s senses (and the poetic descriptions that result from these senses) because of their tendency to obfuscate the real, the sublime, to which perception has no access.
In the devotional mode, concerns of “question / & response,” or lack of response, are bedrock. In Teare’s handling of this poetic, however, so too are concerns of sonic and linguistic ingenuity, particularly in the play of line and syntax, and formal variation, from clipped lyric to sonnet crown to long orchestral elegy. Just as the poet-speaker achieves a devotional attitude by moving beyond his sense of vision (and re-vision), he also achieves it through his sense of the poem’s texture, his sense of song. This strategy is illustrated in the final two poems of the collection, elegies in which the subject of Teare’s devotional address shifts from the landscape to two other absent executors of his identity: his friend the late poet Reginald Shepherd, in “Star Thistle,” and his father, who died in 2007, in “To begin with the desire”:
have to begin as our forebearsdid, with the desire to sing,bareheaded, full of sentiment, uppast oaks & graves & emptycorral reclaimed by grassland
The desire to sing, as Teare describes it, is the devotional desire, the desire to make contact with the absence beyond the “oaks & graves & empty / corral”—the divinity that we in the realm of the actual can only attempt to contact.
Where this journey or attempt ends, however, is always in a self-reflexive interrogation of the language of devotion, not unlike the impulse that leads Dickinson to place the word “pray” in quotation marks. This self-reflexivity, which drives poets to question the very language they use, is a familiar propensity, often associated with postmodernism. What has been overlooked are the ways in which this self-reflexive questioning can dovetail with a more general and mystical interrogation of the sacred unknown, as it does in Teare’s case. Teare’s particular brand of postmodernism, then, is devotional.
The language of Teare’s devotions is so fully interrogated that it becomes a central element of the speaker’s notion of the absent divine:
the poem can’t hold the realfields, of course—unsaid
how to sayanything where to put each wordso it lives differently in relationto the real as it dies
The death of the real is the failure of language (“grammar” or “the poem”) to convey transcendence beyond any immediate devotional motivations, be they devotions to the landscape or to the memory of lost loved ones. In practice this postmodern mysticism leads to what Teare calls “my habit / of quotation.” This announcement refers not only to his habit of extensively quoting other seekers of the fundament—such as Duncan, Luce Irigaray, Charles Ives, and Martin Heidegger—but also refers to his desire to name the prairies he finds himself in. Passages from naturalist field guides, such as Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region and A Guide to Western Birds, are strikingly presented alongside the language of academic discourse and gorgeous Romantic description. The scientific and semiofficial names of the poet’s companion grasses are announced with extreme care: Briza maxima or “Quakinggrass,” “Tall Flatsedge Notebook,” Carex scoparia, Sticky Monkeyflower, and Centaurea solstitialis.
As Teare writes, “The attention taxonomy requires / amounts to a species of singing.” This species of poiesis is, at its most fundamental, a devotional mode. What is the desire to name the grass, the “Vast Prairies of Air,” if not an attempt to understand and claim divinity via the act of utterance, if not the desire to know the unknowable? To end with this desire—to borrow a phrase from “Little Errand”—is to attempt to “gather the rain // in both noun / & verb.”
Photograph: Orin Zebest.
Christopher J. Adamson’s poetry, creative nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Southwest Review, West Branch, the Iowa Review, and the Seattle Review, among other publications. He lives in Oakland.
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