At First Light
...greater is He that is in you.... [1 John 4:4]
Half-past five. I am wan and waste.
hard beneath these ribs and brows.
Before the sheets are first thrown off,
passions resurrect that nurtured
in the day now past, pestered
on the breaths of night. I mourn
near certain sin in this new day,
yet try to snuff the spark that whispers
Peace, be still.
Dew the deserts, salve the stings,
fill this pardoned purgator.
Kindle fresh your resurrection,
warm like anthracite inside.
Bend my spirit's steel
by your holy brawn and brooding.
Guide me with your strong hands,
since I fear that more astrays will come.
Draw near, sweet guest.
Transform my thorns that should be fruit,
Fill me for another day,
that I might not grieve you
Copyright 2005 by John Alexanderson
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, John Alexanderson's "At First Light," caught my attention because of its economical yet densely textured language, and its continuity with the tradition of classic Christian poetry. The tone and theme recollect 17th-century metaphysical poets such as George Herbert, while the style pays homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins' delight in word sounds, adapted to a more modern idiom.
In the opening stanza, Alexanderson uses alliteration and assonance to intensify the sound of his words, lifting them beyond mere prose. We hear a dark harmony in the clenched sound of "destruction" and "clutches," the grinding "R" of hard/ribs/brows. The slightly old-fashioned vocabulary ("wan and waste") also signals that the author is introducing a subject of more than everyday importance. In a more overwritten poem, such language might seem affected, but Alexanderson skirts that trap by using simple, short sentences that maintain the natural and direct style we expect from contemporary verse.
The second stanza concisely lays out the universal dilemma that torments the narrator. Returning to himself from sleep, he sees himself as the flawed element that will spoil the gift of the new day just as he did before. How soon the passions that seemed to "nurture" in the morning turned pestilent before evening!
The heart of his problem is that he simultaneously desires and shuns God's transforming power: "I mourn/near certain sin in this new day,/yet try to snuff the spark that whispers/Peace, be still." The apostle Paul expressed a similar sentiment in Romans 7:18-19: "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."
After catching his breath on a stanza break, the narrator gasps out only "Please...." In the release that follows this prayer, cascades of words tumble out, sped by alliteration: "Dew the deserts, salve the stings,/fill this pardoned purgator." Alexanderson channels the voice of Hopkins in the wonderful lines, "Bend my spirit's steel/by your holy brawn and brooding." I loved that unusual, melodious pairing of male and female, forceful and nurturing, with its echoes of Hopkins' "Holy Ghost [that] over the bent/World broods" (from the poem "God's Grandeur").
The combination of tender intimacy and humble formality in "Draw near, sweet guest" reminded me of Herbert poems such as "Love Bade Me Welcome". Because the power to be good comes from God and not himself, the speaker dares to ask what first seemed impossible: "that I might not grieve you/even once." Instead of looking inward with despair at his own faults, he looks outward with hope in his relationship with God.
Where could this poem be submitted? There are a growing number of excellent literary journals with spiritual themes, which I've recommended before in these pages. Publications to investigate include Windhover, Literature and Belief and Image. I support the mission of these journals, but I also encourage writers of spiritually oriented poetry to explore "mainstream" publication outlets, so as to open up new channels for dialogue between the religious and artistic subcultures. These upcoming contests may also be of interest:
Greensboro Review Literary Awards
Postmark Deadline: September 15
$500 in each category (poetry and fiction); no simultaneous submissions, but unlimited free entries allowed
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter.
Categories: Poetry Critiques