Aging Well with Scott Cairns

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Photo by Antwon I on Unsplash

Scott Cairns is still carrying on his affair with Erato, the Greek muse he addresses throughout his poetry. “I wanted very much/ to find a word to grant us both assurance” he says in the poem “Erato at 64.” At such an age, lovers and poets know that the beloved is as much within them as without and both desire something just beyond words. And so, “Together, we/ addressed the matter of our love, and made/ the most of what our words could not.” (2)

The appearance of another collection of Cairns’ poetry, prolific though he is, is always a cause for celebration. Though he often threatens to be obscure and exotic, (what with his enduring interest in Orthodox liturgy, long-dead mystics, and the etymology of Greek words), he can always surprise you with the embodied thrill of a jaunt up a Cascade mountainside or a hop in the sack with Erato.

‘Sublimity proves compelling,

as a rule, and implicates a matter apprehended,

albeit ever out of view, ever unavailable. Consider it

as a figure for what trembling joy you felt

when, as a child, you stood before the blue Pacific

and beheld what seemed a pulsing stillness

far beyond the roar, or when you walked

through low cloud swirling at the ridge, or when

the great elk raised its massive head from undergrowth

to meet your open eye with his.’

—“Opening the Text” (5)

In Anaphora, his latest collection of new poems, Cairns seems more aware of the apparent limits of words and more attuned to the wonder of the unseen and unspoken. As he explains in the preface, anaphora is “the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase,” a familiar poetic and liturgical device. It is also the name of a prayer in the eucharistic liturgy of the Eastern Church and a term for “the specific liturgical moment when the elements—the bread and wine are consecrated.” 

Cairns is offering up his own words in these poems, lingering with them even in their inadequacy, trusting that “at least intermittently, [they] may acquire due substance of their own, partaking of more than is apparent, the more that is nonetheless so, and is present.” (1) 

This is what makes aging worth bearing. In a life lived well, the cocksureness of early adulthood yields to a trust that the meager gifts you have to offer might be enough. Your confidence in reason gives way to wonder. In “Adiáphora,” Cairns puts it this way: “yes, there is so little/ to be known, so much to be supposed.” (12)

Cairns is always a good companion for me because he reinforces my sense that this yielding and giving way is not an abandonment of the joys of this life, but a richer experience of it. As the fever dreams of younger days recede, you can be amazed at the source of the burning. 

What was it     trembling

just here     just here

trembling     near the core

the very     base of the heart?

What is it now, still     trembling

within that bright     furnace?

—“Inquiry” (16)

It’s OK to call it by name. But it’s also OK to let it be.

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