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Monday Poem: Untitled, by Cary Bleasdale

November 29, 2010

It’s Monday and this is a poem, ergo I conclude that the post title is accurate. It may even foreshadow further poems to be posted on a Monday – who knows? ANYWAY. There is currently a truly wonderful thread over at Slacktivist – the first one that has ever lured me out of the shadows of lurkerdom to contribute – which is full of people posting their favourite poems on religion and faith generally, whether of the belief-in-god kind or the belief-in-people kind or others; personally, the whole thread is a glorious vindication of belief-that-the-world-is-a-good-place. If, one day in a dreary office somewhere off towards Zeta Reticuli, an alien taxonomist sits down to write the encyclopaedia entry on the now-extinct human race, I submit that “They produced some damn fine poetry” would not be an entirely inappropriate epitaph.

A lot of the poems I was familiar with, a lot I wasn’t. Today’s was one of the latter group which I think deserves wider exposure, even if it’s only the exposure of my little circle of readers. This is a poem by Slacktivite Cary Bleasdale aka CaryB, and does not have a title, at least not one he posted inthread. He appended to the original post the note that it’s “even better read out loud”, and I think that even if you don’t actually read it out, there’s something very audible about it; especially in the middle section, where the rhythm is quickfire and the rhymes snap.

Untitled, by Cary Bleasdale

If they did religion right,
And I mean, did it right when they started the whole thing off.
And if there was a God.

We wouldn’t have words
To describe the sacred mystery
Of transubstantiation
Instead, we’d have a word to describe
The transformation of the blessed news
That we’re all, sorta, kinda, beautiful
Into the real cessation
Of all the stupid shit we do.
And that word, and that world
Would be unsubstantiated by the experience
And essence of suffering because the only true
Phrase in all the bible is ‘vale of tears,’
Which is the only part of the whole damn thing
That should’ve been written by William Shakespeare.
And if there was a God,
there would be a word for the feeling
Of waking up next to your lover and staring up
At your cheap, leaking, plaster ceiling and knowing
In that moment that everything’s gonna be alright
This morning.
And if there was a God,
He would tell us the word for being young and broke
With holes in your pants and bumming your smokes
For loving the sunshine and dirty jokes
And for finding your god in a rum and coke
Or maybe in a church, the sort of church they don’t make anymore
With no stained glass in the windows and a hole in the floor
Where they raise your spirits, where they raise their voices
Where they raise the roof,
And the love in your blood is ninety proof
And you can still taste the sins from the night before
But you had a good time, and that’s alright,
Because if there is a God, he’s the sort of God
Who helps drunks cross the street against the light.
And if there was a God, you could call Jesus at ten a.m.
On a Tuesday morning and he’d pick up the phone and tell you
All sorts of things, about stars and trees, and his brand new shoes
And you could talk to Jesus and tell him that really funny joke
About the three old nuns who walk in on the pope
And he’d tell you the one about the Irishman
And when you asked him if he’s a baseball fan
He’ll put Babe Ruth on the phone. Just for you.
And just before he’d hang up, he’d say
Hey, you’re beautiful. And I love you.
And it wouldn’t make it ok
But you’d be able to get out of bed
And that is worth a prayer.
And if there is a God, it’s inspiration
And if there is a saving grace, it’s perspiration,
And if there is something that makes me believe in god,
It’s fornication.
But good fornication, the kind of fornication you have on your kitchen floor
Because you both woke up thirsty at three a.m. and wound up
Fornicating
In a perfect pool of moonlight that may
Or may not, have been sent by God.
And if there is a God.
I don’t think he watches.

*

I have mixed feelings about free verse. It’s the perennial refuge of the lazy poet, to write a couple of sentences in strange lineation and call it a day; and even in the hands of a very good poet it can easily get out of hand, as it were, and become sort of gloopy. To overextend a metaphor, it takes consummate skill to make a poem stand up without some kind of backbone; even if that internal skeleton is not scansion, good free verse usually has some kind of pattern keeping it taut. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is anchored by the repeated formulae at the beginning of each sprawling line-cum-stanza (the intermittent ‘who …’ of section one, the incantatory apostrophes to Moloch in section two, and, finally, the repeated ‘I’m with you in Rockland …’ in section three); Eliot’s Waste Land is held together by careful clusters of words or part-words and images, as well as becoming metrical in certain sections.

I bring this up because the first thing that struck me on reading this through was the fizzing rhymes, and the way that they give a sense of coherence and anchored-ness to verse that, while it occasionally falls into rhythm for a few lines, has no overarching formal structure. There is something about rhyme that forges connections beyond the simple phonetic level (I briefly discussed it here); the juxtaposition of unrelated words, unrelated concepts, that forces them to be considered together. My favourite section of the poem is undoubtedly this bit, which exploits that meaning-creating power of rhyme for all it’s worth:

And if there was a God,
He would tell us the word for being young and broke
With holes in your pants and bumming your smokes
For loving the sunshine and dirty jokes
And for finding your god in a rum and coke
Or maybe in a church, the sort of church they don’t make anymore
With no stained glass in the windows and a hole in the floor
Where they raise your spirits, where they raise their voices
Where they raise the roof,
And the love in your blood is ninety proof
And you can still taste the sins from the night before

It’s no rhyme-scheme with a famous poet’s name attached to it, but it gives these lines a spiky shape they wouldn’t have otherwise. The first four lines share the rhyming sound but also function as an envelope quatrain, with l.2 of this extract closely paralleling l.5. Look at them: they share a lot more than just rhyme, from the identically placed, identically stressed phrases tell us the word / finding your god, to the way that young and broke / rum and coke also share a structure and ‘rhyme’ – well, assonate – on the shared vowel of young and rum. It signals those first four lines as one unit; the next segment of thought is signalled by another set of envelope rhymes, with anymore / floor / before flanking roof / proof.

(‘The love in your blood is ninety proof’ is a gorgeous phrase in pretty much every way, also. It calls back to the previous reference to ‘finding your god in a rum and coke’ but also to an entire poetic tradition of comparing love and/or God to intoxication: Anacreon, Omar Khayyam, the Lover of the Song of Songs whose kisses are sweeter than wine. In that sense it’s a very old, almost clichéd image; but in invoking the language of proof-measurement and blood-alcohol testing it’s a very modern, almost clinical spin on the old thing.)

Loose rhyme is the poem’s skeleton, I think. It’s most evident in that central section, but the chiming Latinate multisyllables that occur at beginning and end – transubstantiation / transformation / cessation near the beginning, and then inspiration / perspiration (recalling Edison’s famous line about genius, no doubt) / fornication at the end – also form an anchoring cluster. The particular flavour of these rhymes is deliciously subversive, too: heavy Latinate diction has religious resonances merely by virtue of the longstanding association of Latin with Catholicism, and transubstantiation and fornication are specifically Christian terms; so borrowing such a suite of words, heavy with history, and using them in the service of a very modern and very un-traditional-Christian conception of godhead is in itself a statement. (In a later post on the same thread, CaryB used the word ‘rapture’ in the sense of non-denominational ecstasy of spirit, and mentioned wanting to claim the word back from Evangelical fundamentalism.)

Formal (or lack-of-form-al) considerations aside, there are just so many moments in this poem that sing to me. I think it’s reasonably clear from the statements quoted above that the god CaryB is trying to envision is at least partly defined by antithesis to the God of certain strains of Christianity; but the poem’s also full of moments that capture a very human – in the sense of both human warmth and human frailty – kind of spirituality. Like this section:

And just before he’d hang up, he’d say
Hey, you’re beautiful. And I love you.
And it wouldn’t make it ok
But you’d be able to get out of bed
And that is worth a prayer.

I’m lucky enough to have had only the briefest of brushes with depression, but I know plenty of people who live with the illness, and this was a forceful reminder of what I’ve been told about it – that depending on the state of your brain, sometimes the strength to get out of bed is indeed a miracle worth giving thanks for; and also the idea that just because I love you isn’t, can’t be, the panacea for all ills that Disney tells us it is doesn’t mean it can’t help. I don’t pray. But again, people do, and for most of the people of faith I have spoken to – in person and online – the focus is not on whether prayer actually makes things okay on the grand scale, or even on the small scale, but on whether it helps them right there, right then. I think faith is too often conceptualised (as much by atheists as by believers, sometimes) as necessarily a matter of grand, sweeping beliefs and spectacular miracles, when in reality it’s as much about the tiny day-to-day things, the human things.

As a final thought, I love the returned-to question of why we have words for certain things and not for other things. In the later volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, this is a recurring preoccupation of Delirium’s: notably, she asks what the word is for the moment when you realise that you’ve forgotten what it felt like to make love to someone you liked a long time ago, and Dream can’t tell her. Later, she wants to know what it means when things aren’t the same always – “the thing that lets you know that time is happening”. (Dream says “Change.”) It is odd that, whether at the level of language (English famously lacking words for schadenfreude, weltschmerz, angst, and so on) or at the level of species, we’ve given a word to something as niche as transubstantiation but not to that feeling of thinking that just for the moment things are going to be okay? I suppose there’s relief for the latter, but it’s a little broad (and a little soiled by its connotations of light relief, comic relief, relieving oneself, and so on.) But on the other hand, it’s something of a blessing: lacking a single word for a thing forces us to describe exactly what it is, the precise thing that we want a word to mean, and such descriptions are usually more evocative than the single word would be. CaryB’s are very good.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2010 4:27 pm

    Ooh. Nice commentary. Well said.

  2. newscum permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:57 am

    *Jawdrop*

    Thats….thats literally exactly what I was thinking. I mean, I literally thought all those things you said.

    The bits about the rhyme, the choice of “fornication” and “transubstantion” for their religious implications, the assonants (although I think of it more in terms of slant rhyme) the beat in “young and broke/rum and coke” (which, when read, takes on a sort of rap beat) even the Song of Solomon and Edison references!

    Jesus Christ, get out of my head!

  3. Seamus permalink
    December 1, 2010 10:52 am

    Because if there is a God, he’s the sort of God
    Who helps drunks cross the street against the light.

    That’s my god right there. Well, but seriously, I love these lines, and this idea, and I love this poem too. Thanks for bringing it over here and giving me the chance to read it and share in your spot-on discussion of it. As a matter of fact, I am typing this from a bed that I would like to get out of but won’t, but not because of depression, gracias a Díos, but because the door of my room opens straight into the living room, where someone is currently sleeping, in this flat that really could have been designed by an evil genius for the maximum discomfort of its residents. But this poem makes me glad to be awake at least.

    I’m interested, too, in your final paragraph, the one about things we don’t have words for. I know a word that an old friend and I used (possibly incorrectly) to describe a spontaneous blissful conviction that everything is going to be great today — we would say we were feeling “numinous” — but as for the hesitant, bruised conviction that things will be alright for now, there is no word that I know. You’re right about that being a good thing in necessitating description, though. I’ve been told before that this is an element very apparent in Welsh; that a small vocabulary leads, in turn, to a great abundance of poetic and figurative language in the way it is used. I know no Welsh, however, and you do know some: maybe something worth writing a post about some time, if in fact there is any foundation to what people say about Welsh?

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