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Unread 10-08-2019, 04:46 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
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Default A Brief History of God

A Brief History of God

Running water, running through the mind
as if in haste. The eye at night. The blue
the iris opens onto. Could this be
another world? Or is it just the same
as what we knew in childhood? Every leaf
on every tree’s discrete, and as they dance,

the mind has rest. The places I have been
are not on any map, and yet I know them;
they fill the soul. It is no mystery
that makes the sun stand still. You may not feel
the need to spell this out. The running water
begins and ends this history of God.


The standard metaphors do not apply.
We’ve come to where the days we live are all
lined up like Sunday. Everything we see
is just that thing and nothing else – for God
abhors a lie. Each item in the world
is present and complete when being ends.

What lies will stand for truth? When we arrive
at God’s throne, will the lies we like to tell
deceive the Lord? Or will each falling-off
be weighed and measured in the absolute?

What sins are virtue after all? When judgment
falls on our soul, what wiggle room obtains?
Will we have time for explanation, or
will each word shrivel in that even light?

Last edited by John Isbell; 10-12-2019 at 06:16 AM.
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Unread 10-08-2019, 06:47 AM
Aaron Poochigian Aaron Poochigian is offline
Join Date: May 2007
Location: New York, NY
Posts: 4,312

John, each of these sections is very good. I am still trying to wrap my mind around the whole.

I would suggest adding the definite article in section 3: "The standard metaphors. . ."
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Unread 10-08-2019, 08:25 AM
Mary Meriam's Avatar
Mary Meriam Mary Meriam is offline
Join Date: Nov 2005
Location: usa
Posts: 7,243

Hi John, the title and the first part are plenty enough to say in one poem - and very good. P2 and 3 start getting stiff and didactic - "obtains" - ugh. Also, you say "The running water
begins and ends this history of God" but you keep going. It's all in P1. In P1S2, I don't like "they fill the heart" - too sappy. I don't understand "It is no mystery that makes the sun stand still." It's a mystery to me, since the sun doesn't stand still. The running water idea is brilliant.
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Unread 10-08-2019, 08:52 AM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Location: San Diego, CA, USA
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In the first section of this poem, the narrator would like the history of God to begin and end with running water; in the second, God is associated with "that even light." The only human presence in the poem is in peaceful alignment with the narrator, either as "I" or "we."

There is therefore no human conflict in the poem. The reader is included in the narrator's "we," too, so we are taken along in the same direction as the narrator. There is, however, a conflict between external serenity (constantly-running water, evenly-shining light, the certainty of absolutes) and internal anxiety: What if there is harsh judgment for our sins--and particularly lying, in which one's words do not match objective, absolute reality? What if our collective--and perhaps my individual--notions about the final judgment turn out not to match objective, absolute reality, either? So the "wiggle room" of mercy is contrasted with the certainty of absolute justice. How can mercy co-exist with absolute justice? How can both of these things be true?

Your reference to water in this poem made me think of the versions of your poem of September 24, which had included Rumi's striking line about the water vs. the pitcher.

So I went back to that one, and saw that you had cut that line.

Okay. Here the pitcher has been discarded, and we just get the running water of God. But water itself is a work of creation, and Augustine warned of the dangers of mistaking creation for the Creator. God is not water. Rumi's water is only a metaphor. (And it's a metaphor for finding the divine not in nature, but in inspired human beings.)

While looking at the other poem, I also saw a multi-page conversation, which I found fascinating, although you didn't seem to enjoy it. I don't want to revive that conversation, except to say that this poem seems like the opposite of that contentious conversation, in many regards.

The narrator here worries about explanations failing and words shriveling, i.e., a breakdown of communication; and also about the sin of lying, which involves words that defy the Truth (and thus defy one of the traditional names of God).

In the Rumi poem's thread, I saw explanations failing, and critics saying that they felt the poem itself was not a successful vehicle for communicating philosophical or emotional truths, for various reasons. Even if you disagree with those assessments, and suspect people's true motives in presenting them, I think it would be very worthwhile to reflect on them.

The near-absence of humans is something I've noticed in many of your poems. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but in the context of religion, I find it significant, because religions are communal, social constructs, even though religious experiences tend to be personal and individual.

It's no secret that human relationships are imperfect, messy, frustrating things. Hence Sartre's vision of hell in "No Exit" as an eternity spent with other people. Withdrawing from human interaction into a more serene space, whether literally (as into a house of worship or into nature), or metaphorically (as into a meditative or ecstatic state) are traditional ways of connecting with God.

While I recognize the value of such retreats--even Jesus often needed to get away by himself--I'm struck by the fact that if one's god is, as envisioned by many religions, quite literally love, that implies relationships. And even the association of God with the Word (voiced to a prophet, written in Scripture) implies relationships, because words imply communication.

Words are also a poet's artistic medium. Poems are communication, and are attempts at truth-telling, getting at honest emotion, etc. And of course poetry is a creative endeavor, so there are religious parallels with the notion of a Creator.

I think that the issues discussed in the previous thread are worth pondering, because they are very relevant to your religious project in general. It's obvious that you are feeling DONE with that particular discussion at this moment in time, and are eager to move on to something else. But I encourage you to come back to that thread with fresh eyes after a few weeks. Wrestling with those ideas of communication and creation is actually wrestling with ideas of God, I feel, and isn't that what this project is about?

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 10-08-2019 at 08:56 AM.
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Unread 10-08-2019, 09:15 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 4,845

Hi Aaron, hi Mary, hi Julie,

Ah, Julie, what a splendid comment. Yes, it was an interesting thread, with various good points made, but complicated to my mind for reasons we don't need to get into. Certainly I was spurred to do a complete overhaul of that old poem - there's a new version up now, but I don't feel the need to bump the thread. I do hope people show up in the occasional poem here, but much of my religion work was done and completed in comparative isolation, as the poems often reflect. Not all, but much of it.
Mary: God is a harsh master, for me at least. Again, not always, but neither is religion going to be all touchy-feely in my experience, and that's why I've got section two here. Perhaps a better argument for it is Julie's comment, which goes to the heart of my thinking on the topic. Yes that section is didactic, in a sense, though couched in questions not answers. Part Three is maybe more didactic, but its purpose is the (I hope) slightly unusual one of rejecting all metaphor in a poem built on it. I also quite like saying the story's ended and then bringing out the two-by-four. Van Morrison ends side one of Moondance with the words "Too late to stop now" - then the record ends. I'm trying out the opposite. As for "they fill the heart," it's my exact feeling, and I like the internal rhyme; but I'll certainly look at a snappier formulation. Lastly, here's Joshua 10: 13: "So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day." That may be a mystery to Joshua, but it's no mystery to Copernicus, which is kind of my point. I'm very glad you found a lot to like here.
Aaron: I'm glad you enjoyed the poem! Yes, I like all three sections as well. I've laid out a bit of what I see as their interaction in my reply to Mary's comments, above. God is of course a big topic and this is just a brief history of it. Oh, I'll make the change you suggest - thank you.

Cheers, and thank you all,

Update: I've now got "they fill the soul," which I think is slightly less sappy - thank you. I'll think about obtains, Mary, but I like rotating common words into odd OED meanings they have, and I like juxtaposing that tonally with wiggle room. For me it makes the dictionary dance just a little bit.

Last edited by John Isbell; 10-08-2019 at 09:47 AM. Reason: a personal note
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Unread 10-12-2019, 02:48 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Lazio, Italy
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I quite like this, John, except for the middle section, which strikes a different, didactic chord. What would you think of dropping that section? Part III is a nice balance to part I, imo.
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Unread 10-12-2019, 06:19 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 4,845

Hi Andrew,

OK, you and Mary have sold me. I'm not wedded to that middle section, and as you both argue, I may have overspiced the stew there and lost the flavor I'm going for in Part Three, which after all says the same thing more discreetly. I also think Parts One and Three are more interesting as poetry.
Part Two is now cut.

Thank you both,
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