Photograph by Simon Brown
Silent things lurk in the heart. Bulky, heavy. Slimy, slick. Hidden and unheeded. Inarticulate, but there. What is their oxygen, what is their air? With bristles and gristles, long teeth and sharp. With scales and tails, and sometimes wails, pulsing through dark waves of the deeps.
Angers, jealousies, dreams. Thoughts about God that have taken a life of their own.
Sadnesses, with cloudy squid ink. Exhaustion with more girth than a humpback whale.
The seaweed grasses, floating tangled, catch a glint of sun from far above. Silent things — they too catch the light.
* * *
From all the books in my “maybe-buying” stack, it was the thin volume of poetry I liked best. With that and a miniature traveling icon, I proceeded to the checkout. There was a treasure-finding prick in my thumbs; I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and start reading. It seemed the store owner, Warren Farha, agreed with me: his gentle smile deepened when he saw which book I had chosen, and he said something about how beautiful it was, and what a good find.
It was the two-volume book Prayers from the Ark and The Creatures’ Choir by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, first published in 1947 and translated by Rumer Godden in 1962. My first impression of the prayer-poems was that I had found a poetry collection exquisitely charming and witty. Take “The Prayer of the Elephant” for example:
it is I, the elephant,
who is talking to You.
I am so embarrassed by my great self
and truly it is not my fault
if I spoil Your jungle a little with my big feet.
Let me be careful and behave wisely,
always keeping my dignity and poise.
Give me such philosophic thoughts
that I can rejoice everywhere I go
in the lovable oddity of things.
What a prayer for such a great, big, cumbersome, incredibly intelligent creature as the elephant, such a “lovable oddity” himself. The rapport he has with his Creator is no less endearing — how comfortable he is to ask for what he wants, and not a bit shy of telling God whose fault it is his tracks leave such a wake.
Look too at these lines from “The Hedgehog”:
You at least
have understood me,
that is why You made me
such a pinball.
What candor with the Creator, and what clear, humorous self-knowledge! The poems offer refreshment through their honest animal voices.
They also offer a kind of empathy for what’s entailed in being a creature, in being alive. “The Prayer of the Old Horse” is one of the most empathetic:
my coat hangs in tatters,
like homespun, old, threadbare.
All that I had of zest,
all my strength,
I have given in hard work . . .
The image comes with a pang, for we see standing in an old barn an old horse who sacrificed for the good of his owners, faithfully plodding along through the long rows of barley fields for many seasons. This is poetry at its dearest — honest, appealing, interesting, and connective.
It was in rereading the poems, though, that the poetry got left behind. I started reading these poems as prayers. And not prayers of the animals, but prayers for myself. These are prayers I would never know how to say, for the creature-like movements inside of me are intrinsically inarticulate. These poems are prayers for the animals inside of us — the heavy, slow, frightful, instinctive — those parts of us that fly and plod and bury down. By giving voice to the animals, these poems speak for a range of aspects within us: the workaday ox that will labor long, the hidden self that spins with majesty and imagination like the oyster at the bottom of the sea, that part that keeps chirping like the cricket at dusk.
I was experiencing in these poems the lack of sentimentality that Rumer Godden described in her foreword, but I was surprised by how raw that made me feel. “It is the truthfulness of the prayers,” Godden wrote, “especially as it re-reflects on us, unthinking humans, that causes pain.” Yes, re-reflecting on these poems was indeed becoming painful, but why? I considered again “The Prayer of the Ox”:
Dear God, give me time.
Men are always so driven!
Make them understand that I can never hurry.
Give me time to eat.
Give me time to plod.
Give me time to sleep.
Give me time to think.
Was it painful to re-reflect on these lines because one side of me kept striving and driving on while another side, like the sturdy and slow ox, simply needed more time to just be? Perhaps. So I would sometimes pray “The Prayer of the Goldfish” and participate in its piercing plea:
O God . . .
Deliver me from the cramp of this water
and the terrifying things I see through it.
Put me back in the play of your torrents,
in Your limpid springs.
Let me no longer be a little goldfish
in its prison of glass
but a living spark
in the gentleness of Your reeds.
What a perfect prayer for the goldfish inside of me.
* * *
At the end of last year, something strange began happening at the end of dance classes or yoga sessions: I wanted to cry. The urge would well up like an unwanted fountain. This urge to weep — to heave heavy, dry tears — was sometimes so strong I would hurry from class to car. Once, my kind yoga teacher knelt down beside me as tears streamed away. “Oh, Jessica,” she said in soft empathy. It was she who suggested this could be a season of letting go.
A season of letting go? What on earth does that mean? I wondered.
On a day in December that my husband provided as a break from looking after the little one, I had planned on writing, maybe a trip to the museum, definitely a stop at some hip LA coffee shop. But Morning Prayer dipped down into the recesses of the heart and lengthened its wings to a couple hours of simply crying, of feeling release, of feeling the pain of release.
With the help of another person, I started to intuit that God is passionate about the whole person. My usual modus operandi is keeping everything calm and peaceful within; it is so much easier to live with myself, to be likeable and loveable. But God made us human — to live and breathe in full, not stuck in some narrow slit along the expansive, colorful spectrum of human emotion and sensibility and physicality — even though it feels so much safer. Maybe I could start to release the white-knuckled grip I had on my neat place in the spectrum.
Oh, but how?
How does someone undo the habitualized practice of inner peace begotten through control and fear, years of not rocking the inner boat by keeping the boat in a pond — while all the seas are calling?
And part of the answer, part of the gracious, slow answer was the grace of articulation. It is grace to have these inarticulate urges, desires, habits, and propensities articulated. Words become form for these animals inside of us, so that they can travel, half-hidden in shadow perhaps, toward open light. That’s what articulation does: it grants hidden things a voice.
That’s what Carmen Bernos de Gasztold helps create for us. She helps, via deceptively charming verse, give a voice to that part within that often has no voice, the visceral, unheeded, hidden, suspicious aspects of us. Like these lines from “Prayer of the Lark”:
When will You keep me forever?
Must You always let me fall
back to the furrow’s grip . . . ?
Or these, from “The Prayer of the Donkey”:
O God, who made me
to trudge along the road
to carry heavy loads
always . . .
Give me great courage and gentleness.
Or this section from “The Snail”:
And just to bring home the smear of my helplessness,
these two eyes on the tips of my horns
are two timid periscopes.
Lord, You know
that someone who drags along complains.
Don’t be offended by this misanthropic heart
but, to lighten its burden,
send a paradise of lettuces—for one—
and the warmth of a thunder shower.
Carmen wrote these poems in France during World War II, while working in a silk factory. What creativity and humor she had, to put such pleasurable voices to our fellow creatures. She also had the generosity to sound other tones, tones that creatures living from day to day are going to know about — plaintiveness, fear, exhaustion, pride, forgetfulness, worry. She gave these things a voice as well, intertwined with gratitude and trust in the very same poems, the very same prayers — and the voice is all the richer, louder, truer.
This small chapter of mine, playing out around the new year, continued. With the help of yet another person, grace came in the form of physical therapy. For me, there was a sense that my not-letting-go habits had been housed in the body for a long time. This work was such a vulnerable process. But it was God getting down to the visceral, cell-level of my personhood; grace was going there too, bypassing the analytical mind or fearful heart, and bringing help to the tightened, hardened places. Once or twice, huge heavy sobs would well and pour out. Armor, or parts of it, that I had worn for a long time was starting to melt and dissolve. There came an allowance for negative emotion that I had never thought possible. How could a follower of Christ feel such anger and sadness? Then again, how could she not? From the deeps came a new openness, an articulation hence unheard.
Around this time I found a poem by Brian Volck that expressed this grace of messy articulation, that was yet another help along the way. Guess what this poem is called? “Find Your Voice”:
There. Right there:
in hidden chords
suspended between head and heart.
But why stop there?
Dig deeper, through sooty lungs,
the restless heart itself
and farther still:
across the muscular divide,
to dark cavities where
guts, piss, and shit
ground forgetful desire.
The injunction to use “hidden chords” and yet still “Dig deeper,” to not fear the mess of “guts, piss, and shit” is kind and liberating: it trusts the person who is trying to sound out new words, new sentences, a new language of letting go. There are moments the Holy Spirit moves with this same injunction — find your voice for the deeps of the body, in muscle cells and animal prayers, in the “dark cavities” where pre-word desire, longing, struggle, and anger dwell. Because giving these aspects within us a voice is more than sounding out cacophonous noise, though it may well do that: it is giving them grace. Grace through articulation defeats shame and dismissal and worthlessness. It acknowledges the whole person, the vast oceans of personhood, and in doing so, we have the chance to find ourselves in a release of holy mercy so expansive it can circumnavigate — traverse — any ocean, no matter how dark or treacherous the waves, no matter what sea creatures rise and fall therein.
It’s like being in the pages of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Max sails from his bedroom through long waters to encounter wild things — huge, strange creatures with brambly fur and yellow eyes, scrambling around isolated lands. As we turn the pages, we realize the gift Sendak gave to children (and all of us), for of course these wild things are in Max, having him scare a cat and yell at his mom. But we get the chance to see them, for Sendak gave them form. And what’s more, we get to see Max see them, and interact with them, and in time, leave them and return to his bedroom, where his mother has kept dinner warm and waiting. In those times when I am overwhelmed with the animals inside of me, the movements in the deeps, I wonder: what would it be like if I “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks . . . to where the wild things are”? What quirky, gruesome, long-toothed creatures would be there?
It is interesting, this mind-play, not really because of these imagined creatures, but because who I am in these “dark cavities”: I am loved there. Loved and comforted and encouraged, to rest, or seek help, or keep going with humor and quality decaf coffee and barbeques with friends. Walk with the lantern of the Psalms; ask others to pray; take time to write. Practice articulating hard things.
I am learning, ever so slowly, to give voice to the life forms on either side of my narrow spectrum-slit — on one side, in indigo waves, large deep-sea whales and dolphins; on the other, in crimson skies, herons and flamingos. What am I really talking about? I’m giving voice to discontent and envy and boredom. It isn’t pretty; it’s messy and loud and tiresome and much more work than sitting safe in my sun-glazed john boat in the backyard pond. The animals in Gasztold’s menagerie are not afraid of articulating all sorts of honest pleas and complaints to their Creator; they are open and comfortable with the One who knows them so well. Lines from “The Prayer of the Owl” beseech God’s mercy with subtle trust:
It is not, Lord, that I hate Your light.
I wail because I cannot understand it . . .
startles a depth of tears in every heart.
will it wake Your pity?
The owl inside of us might ask such a question, like the wild things, the fierce bear and the shy seahorse. Where are you, God? Can you help me? These questions, I think, are evidence of deep grace, grace going deeply, granting form through words, though they are difficult words to say.
* * *
There are times when articulation is too hard. An imaginative picture book does not help, nor an honest poem. Not every shark in the heart gets a voice, not every fear a name. But grace, of course, works in other ways. Last week, I came across this poem in my little son’s new book from his great-grandma, A Small Child’s Book of Prayers. I read the prayer, and indeed, prayed it:
Dear Father, hear and bless
Thy beasts and singing birds.
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words.