It’s all here. Beginnings and endings. Heaven and hell. Divine intentions and bodily appetites. That’s what you get with the poet Scott Cairns. Look for the kitchen sink. I’m sure it’s in there, too.
Recently I came back for a season to Philokalia: New & Selected Poems, Cairns’ 2002 collection. It’s as rich and evocative as I remembered. Nobody captures the sensuality of angels brushing the earth and women brushing their hair like Cairns. He’s going to linger on the moment, as all good poets do. After all, “So little to be done, and so much time.” (67)
Let’s start at the creation. Actually before. In ‘The Beginning of the World’ Cairns gives us audience with the Lover who hungers for a Beloved prior to anything coming into view:
God’s general availability, His brooding peckishness, an appetite and predilection—even before invention—to invent, to give vent, an all but unsuspected longing for desire followed by the eventual arrival of desire’s deep hum, its thrumming escalation and upward flight into the dome’s aperture, already open and voluble and without warning giving voice. (121)
Then, let’s go to the apocalypse—‘The End of Heaven and the End of Hell’ in a 12-part poem titled ‘Disciplinary Treatises.’ The destination turns out to be the same no matter how you’ve lived. We lose the “feeble fretwork” of this age and we become ourselves.
And that long record of our choices—your
every choice—is itself the final
body, the eternal dress. And, of course,
there extends before us finally a measure
we can recognize. We see His Face
and see ourselves, and flee. And shame—old
familiar—will sustain that flight unchecked,
or the Ghost, forgotten just now—merest
spark at the center—will flare, bid us turn
and flame unto a last consuming light:
His light, our light, caught at last together
as a single brilliance, extravagant,
compounding awful glories as we burn. (132)
Like Jamie Quatro, whose novel Fire Sermon earlier this year mined the quarry of desires, carnal and spiritual, Cairns is not afraid of burning. He knows the impossibility of staying on the surface. Even when he pretends, as in the poem ‘Taking Off Our Clothes,’ “that there is no such thing/as metaphor,” he fails. “[T]his could all/be happening in Kansas,” he says, and yet his proposed simple encounter with a lover becomes, despite itself, transcendent.
Cairns has now created a body of work that stands among the best of any Christian poet. His range is impressive, from the quotidian to the esoteric. And the depth of his study shows through, sometimes lightly, often with surprising depth. As when he investigates the Greek word nous, showing why it is more than mind and describes it thus:
Dormant in its roaring cave,
the heart’s intellective appetite grows dim,
unless you find a way to wake it. (26)
And then he goes on to suggest an exercise to do just that.
I spend many mornings with a Scott Cairns poem. His collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, which I reviewed earlier, is a great introduction to the Christian spiritual tradition. Philokalia is a great introduction to the poet himself. And so much more.