Books in Review

Questions for Ecclesiastes

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 48-51.

Conversing with an Absent God

Questions for Ecclesiastes. By Mark Jarman. Story Line Press. 100 pp. $10 paper.

Reviewed by Bill Coyle

The literary climate in the twentieth century has not been notably hospitable to religious poetry. Indeed, one might assert that the tradition, which in English peaked with Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, and Milton, has been in decline, despite the relatively late appearance of a poet as gifted as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Granted, such poets as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden based some of their most important works (one thinks particularly of "The Four Quartets" in Eliot’s case, and of "Horae Canonicae" in Auden’s) on Christian convictions. Even then, though, it was clear that these poets were writing for a public—the increasingly limited public of poetry readers and writers—that was at best indifferent to, and often hostile toward, Christianity.

It is an encouraging sign, then, to come across a new book of verse as stylistically accomplished and direct in its grapplings with matters of faith as Mark Jarman’s Questions for Ecclesiastes. This is the seventh book of poetry from Jarman, who teaches at Vanderbilt University and who has also received attention as an editor and critic. The title alludes to that book of the Bible so beloved by skeptics and pessimists, for the questions Jarman poses in poem after poem are challenges to the Preacher’s resigned acceptance, and to his famous assertion that "all is vanity."

Jarman poses these questions most directly and memorably in the title poem, which tells the story of a preacher (Jarman’s father) visiting a couple whose daughter has just committed suicide. The poem incorporates the things this preacher does not say, but that the biblical Ecclesiastes does—"the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing," "the dead know not anything for the memory of them is forgotten," "live joyfully . . . all the days of the life of thy vanity . . . for that is thy portion in this life"—all of which would have been cold comfort to this couple in their loss. The poem’s complex weaving of sympathetic imaginings, personal remembrances, naturalistic descriptions, and biblical quotations is evident in its concluding stanza.

Still that night exists for peo-
ple I do not know in ways I
do not know, though I have
tried to imagine them. I
remember my father going
out and my father
coming back. The fog, like
the underskin of a
broken wave, made a low
ceiling that the street
lights pierced and illumi-
nated. And God who shall
bring every work into judg-
ment, with every secret
thing, whether it be good or
whether it be evil, who
could have shared what he
knew with people who
needed urgently to hear it,
God kept a secret.

God is as much an absence as a presence for Jarman; in this sense he is an eminently modern poet. The conversation is never, as it sometimes was with earlier poets, two-sided. On the other hand, Jarman does speak of, and sometimes to, God with a directness one could be forgiven for having thought no longer possible. Certainly it is not currently fashionable.

Almost as keenly regretted as God’s silence is the inevitable passage of time. There is throughout the book a feeling of melancholy and of nostalgia, a sense of a world surrounded by the threat of extinction. There are references throughout to mist, sleep, night, the ocean—all symbols, for Jarman, of an encroaching nothingness. This is not to say that the volume is joyless, but that the joy is made keener through knowledge of the things that overwhelm or threaten to overwhelm it. In "A.M. Fog," a meditation on the title subject leads the poet back to a scene from his youth.

I remember a gang of friends
Racing a fog bank’s onslaught along the beach.
Seal-slick, warm from the sun
This thing would eat, they
ran laughing.

The fog came on. And they
were beautiful,
The three boys and one girl,
still in her wetsuit,
And the dissolution overtak-
ing them,
Their stridency, full of faith,
still audible.

At heart, though, this is a book about family, or rather, the complex relationship between faith and family. Indeed, though the poet dwells persistently, almost obsessively, on the theme of families, and on their kindnesses and cruelties, the book is saved from the bathos common to confessional poetry by the larger view afforded by Christian faith. In "Last Suppers," the tragedy unfolding in Leonardo’s painting and its countless reproductions is played off the family tragedies and betrayals that happen around the dinner table. In "Proverbs," a passage from the biblical book of the same name provides the starting point for a meditation on sexual love. And in "Patience," part of a sequence called "The Past from the Air," a child longing for some response to prayer is juxtaposed with a mother waiting for her absent husband to call from the road. The linkage between the two predicaments deepens our understanding of both.

The call will come. She
knows his call will come.
Meanwhile, she works and an-
swers children’s questions.
Today one question is, "Why
is God dumb?"
She pauses. Dumb? And puts
a stamp in place.
"Yes," says the child. "All I
can hear is silence
After I pray." Inside she notes
the challenge:
If God does not exist, describe
his absence
No word. No word. No word.
No word. No word.

Jarman has found his subject, and he has the stylistic resources to help him explore it. Meter and rhyme have lately been making a comeback, but their competent use is still rare enough to be noteworthy. Most of the poems in Questions for Ecclesiastes are written in well-modulated iambic pentameter or some variation thereof. Those that are not—"Transfiguration," "Proverbs," the title poem—imitate the forms of the biblical texts on which they are based. The most technically impressive part of the book, though, is the series of twenty "Unholy Sonnets." Jarman has said that the title was chosen to avoid making a presumptuous comparison between his verses and John Donne’s "Holy Sonnets." Sonnet two is, to my mind, the most successful. Here the poet’s metrical technique is prominently on display, and the confines of the form allow him an opportunity to display his wit and wordplay, as a child’s game becomes a grim meditation on mankind’s relationship to God.

Hands folded to construct a
church and steeple,
A roof of knuckles, outer walls of skin,
The thumbs as doors, the fin-
gers bent within
To be revealed, wriggling, as
"all the people,"
All eight of them, enmeshed,
caught by surprise,
Turned upward blushing in
the sudden light,
The nails like welders’ masks,
the fit so tight
Among them you can hear
their half-choked cries
To be released, to be pried
from this mess
They’re soldered into some-
how—they don’t know.
But stuck now they are will-
ing to confess,
If that will ease your grip and
let them go,
Confess the terror they cannot
Is being locked inside another

Questions for Ecclesiastes has its faults. Jarman seems at times (in "Dressing My Daughters," for example) to drag the divine in to touch up what would otherwise be an undistinguished poem. The result is a sameness that becomes evident if one reads too many of the poems at a stretch. And formally gifted as the poet is, he does on occasion shift from exact to inexact rhyme in a manner that makes it appear he is not fully in control of his material. These are minor reservations, however, given the strengths of the book as a whole.

Bill Coyle is a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, Mass.