In the waist-roped, white linen robe that, in my monthly service, denuded me of choice for church dress, I creaked across the wooden altar to the pulpit in St. Peter’s, which built itself upon the rock of high Anglican ceremony and socially liberal mores. In, I’d processed with the crucifix ahead of Father Paden, and now I would read the first scripture, from Matthew Chapter 6—“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…”—and onward, Let us pray, and we knelt, and we rose, and we knelt; and we voiced our scripted supplications from The Litany—“From all the inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us”_—_and so on into the vague remembered of what-usually-happened those Sundays. Many years later, as I drafted a poem for my first book, these memories shepherded me into the notion that “The first love poems I knew were // prayers.” God the Beloved, God the unrequited. This gesture of ars poetica codifies, if not complicates, my lifelong but allusive association of poetry—or, at least, beautiful and rhythmic language—with spirituality.
Although my faith in the Christian God went dark long ago, my faith in mystery—the great Ineffable—remains and, through poetry, swells. For me, spirituality is the belief in, acceptance, and willing experience of the unknown, and reading poetry is an ecstatic exercise in blind-leading-the-blind agnosticism. The poetry I value most, perhaps paradoxically, allows for, yet draws close to what can’t be said, the ineffabilis, the “not utterable.”
I’ve never encountered a poet of the Ineffable quite like Emily Dickinson:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it
The “certain Slant of light” provides the tone through which the speaker reads experience. It and its effects are inexplicable, “None may teach it”; yet, in another paradox, Dickinson describes the experience by saying it cannot be described. This gesture is kin to the notion that one knows God better by admitting one cannot fathom God, the infinite “I am.” Dickinson invites the ineffable into her act of utterance, exposing the limitation of that utterance and, therefore, the self, furthermore allowing the self to transcend the bounds of utterance so that the self is author of what is said and what cannot be said.
All of this reminds me of the contemporary poet and Catholic mystic Fanny Howe’s writings on bewilderment. Howe invokes the concept as an ethics and poetics rooted, I think, in Samuel Johnson’s 1752 use of “bewilder” to mean “To lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” It means, quite literally, to be or become wilder. Howe writes:
“In the Dictionary, to bewilder is ‘to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.’
“The wilderness as metaphor is in this case not evocative enough because causing a complete failure in the magnet, the compass, the scale, the stars and the movement of the rivers is more than getting lost in the woods.
“Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.”
Bewilderment, the argument against context; the unknown acting upon or erasing the known. Bewilderment as perfect spirituality.
So, how does one come to—or, rather, _in_to—bewilderment? How is one bewildered? Can poetry bewilder us?
On our way home from supper tonight, as my husband drove, I rode with my head out the passenger’s side window, like I often do when I’m out of words. I removed my glasses, and the world I knew receded to vagary. (Vagary, I should note, comes from the Latin vagari, “wander.”) The wind filled my ears, and the sound and motion allowed me to transcend my body, the day’s narrative, even ego. Moments like these, in which I am humbled to a trance induced by rhythm and sound, have brought me as close to true bewilderment, I believe, as I’ve ever felt. Here, I’m instinct rather than intellect. I have invited the unknown into the known.
Poetry, like the car ride with one’s head out the window, can offer the bewilderment of motion, vagary, and noise. The poetry of bewilderment appeals to the senses to allow the self to be unconscious of the senses—that is, the known. I’m most aware of my senses (“the deceits of the world, the flesh”) when those senses are overloaded—as they are with pain, blinding light, or deafening noise—or when they are not appealed to—as happens in a dark room when I can’t see or when I have a stuffy nose and can’t smell. For poetry to bewilder, and therefore become a spiritual engagement, it must balance meaning (utterance), silence (the ineffable), and sound (the senses).
Returning to Dickinson, whose poetry owes much to the composition of prayers, we find this trinitas at work. We have what the poem is trying to say—winter light causes me to be depressed—and the allowed ineffable—but I have no idea why, except that it seems to connect me to some unknowable, perhaps divine, misfortune—delivered through highly rhythmic and musical verse. Like the scenes in MacBeth featuring Shakespeare’s Three Witches (sans Hecate), Dickinson’s poem renders divine disorder—and, furtively, her unease—through largely trochaic lines, an inversion of the heartbeat-like iambic pattern; furthermore, Dickinson emphasizes this instability with additions and substitutions that don’t allow for a full number of feet per line and that stress the lines’ final syllables, an effect (somewhat problematically) referred to as a “masculine ending”:
/ ˘ | / ˘ | / ˘ | /
There’s a certain Slant of light Three and a half trochaic feet
/ ˘ | / ˘ | /
Winter After noons – Two and a half trochaic feet
In the same way that the ineffable is allowed into the uttered, Dickinson gives us regularity in the midst of irregularity through her rhyme scheme, ABAB CDCD, where the A and C rhymes (light/heft, us/difference) are slant rhymes, and B and D are true rhymes (noons/Tunes, scar/are). The poem’s regularity gives shape to its irregularity and, therefore, produces an effect on the reader analogous to someone running across a collapsing bridge; with every step, the stones fall away from order into disorder. Perhaps this is the way in which poetry offers us a kind of bewilderment and connects us spiritually with the unknown: it gives us the tools of navigation, but then the compass starts to spin, the scale dips to one arm and then another, the stars confuse, and the rivers flood out of their paths.
In chapel one Wednesday, for I also went to St. Peter’s School, I watched the rain twisting like clear snakes over the windows while I absently sang “Seek Ye First,” a hymn derived from Matthew 6:33, with the other children. The rain I imagined rising to deluge, rising up to flood St. Peter’s even though it was on a hill, so that I would be stranded there to make a small fire from dried palms, to eat communion wafers and drink wine in the rafters, to paddle the halls in a canoe I carved from a pew—a plague, a miracle. Imaginative impulses, like the imagined flood, were the closest I came to knowing God and among my first experiences of writing, and they came out of a backdrop of utterance—“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, singing Hal-le-lu-halle-lu-jah”—and what couldn’t be uttered, of getting lost in thought, bewildered: of inviting the unknown into the known. When I wrote about this moment in my second book, I responded to my first book’s idea that the first love poems I knew were prayers; this time, I realized that the first and perhaps truest love poem was that of absence, what couldn’t be put into words.
All These Things Shall Be Added Unto You
In chapel I castled in air a flood
from rain that forked on the windows
silver and sheeted in gusts
to mirrors flashing moments,
and although the school was
citadeled on a hill, I imagined the halls
as canals I paddled with canoes carved
from pews—my oars
the crucifix and torch, my life
vest fashioned from the Common
Prayers. I camped in
the rafters and made hand-sized fires
of palms ignited by match and oil. At night I
would drink myself to my first
drunk on communion
red and spread Peter
Pan on the wafers. My daydream then
was not of love, though the stairs
became a waterfall, the computer monitors—
conchs on the lakebed, silent,
their green hypnotic
now dark. The organ pipes were dead
coral that burbled when I dove
from the nave to plunge
its keys. I once said
that prayer was the first form
poem I knew, but before prayer there was
absence. I drowned the other
on either side of me
in absence—their bodies not
floating facedown, unrescued by their parents
or the Coast
Guard. They were simply
gone with the flash flood
like the masses in Noah’s time that we never heard
knocking against the hull
or discovered in trees
bloated and winking, petal eyed
like Benny Goodman.
Noah didn’t survive
long after the ark. The water,
we know now, was
poisoned by us.
Emilia Phillips (she/her/hers) is the author of three poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, most recently Empty Clip (2018), and four chapbooks, including Hemlock (Diode Editions, 2019). Winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, Phillips has published poems, lyric essays, and book reviews in The American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, AGNI, New England Review, The New York Times, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s assistant professor of creative writing in the MFA Writing Program and the Department of English at UNC Greensboro. (updated 12/2019)