The Embodied Poetics of Scott Cairns

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Just as the world shut down last March, Paraclete Press released a small chapbook of new poems by Scott Cairns, A School of Embodied Poetics: New Poems. Cairns is a Heartlands favorite and we’ve checked in on several of his earlier collections, most recently the luminous Anaphora. He invites settled and repeated reading, something that the early days of the pandemic gave me.

Though he’s about his familiar haunts, here, there is a kind of argument running through these poems, too. It finds its clearest embodiment in ‘Minor Treatise: The Poetic’ where he stresses the ability of poems to do something in the world, not merely to reflect.

“If it refers, merely, if

it points away

from itself, overmuch,

to one or another

profound event

or thought preceding

the moment

of the poem,

the imposter fails

to be a poem; it fails

to make.”

In this way poetry doesn’t just fall into another category of recording. It is a thing with “generative agency/ on the page.”

The collection begins with a study on the art of Andreas Vesalius, the 16th century anatomist whose Fabrica gave us rich illustrations of human dissection. The exercise entailed the divorce of body and soul, the “severing one’s sense of he/ from him whose glib humanity/ proved impediment to excavation/ heretofore.” The taking apart precedes a deeper clarity and yet an unnamable loss as well. What lies at the heart of incarnation beyond, say, the heart?

Cairns is still hiking in the Northwest wilderness, still visiting Greek isles, still cherishing and marveling at the miracle of flesh. But he’ll also allow that what he’s after is also beyond the page. “Be still/ a while, and pray without so much/ as a single word,” he says in ‘God Talk.’ “Know this,” Isaak the old master tells his disciples, “You only know what you can know,/ which isn’t near enough.”

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