Yesterday, I posted here about the devotional mode in poetry and my forthcoming anthology, Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, and featured two poems from the anthology. Today, I'd like to highlight the work of two additional poets from the anthology about whose work I am very enthusiastic.
As far as I can tell, Patrice de la Tour du Pin has been little known in the U.S., but thanks to the efforts of poet and translator Jennifer Grotz, he has begun to reach an English-language audience in literary journals, and will continue to do so in Grotz's translation of his collection Psaumes de tous mes temps [Psalms of All My Days], forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2013.
Patrice de la Tour du Pin (1911–1975) was a French, Catholic poet who achieved fame for individual collections of poems as well as Une Somme de poésie, a three-volume multi-genred work he wrote and continually revised throughout his life. Late in his career, de la Tour du Pin distilled and collected his most powerful lyrical poems, written in the form of psalms, into Psaumes de tous mes temps [Psalms of All My Days]. As Jennifer Grotz says, "These psalms articulate his struggle to find poetic authority and spiritual meaning in the midst of world war and modern tumult." I'm thrilled to be able to include four of de la Tour du Pin's psalms in Poems of Devotion, and I'd like to share one of them with you here. More of Grotz's translations of de la Tour du Pin's work can be found online at Blackbird.
PATRICE DE LA TOUR DU PIN
My God, I know only my debt,
all my life carried in debt--
and you who repay it in a word!
Forgive me my shamelessness:
you who have hedged me in from all directions at once,
deliver me in time for your day of rest.
Set the night sky back in motion,
reweave the constellations
into a scaffold for your praise.
On that day when you judge
the taste of my joy with your lips,
my sorrow at your Passion,
will you be able to say: “Here is a man
who valued me
over thirty radiant ideas”?
-translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz
*"Psalm 41" by Patrice de la Tour du Pin, translated by Jennifer Grotz, appears here by permission of Jennifer Grotz.
Another marvelous poet featured in the anthology is Amit Majmudar (b. 1979), a diagnostic nuclear
He [Azazil] was told: Bow down! He said, “I will bow to no other.” He was asked, Even if you receive My curse? He said, “It does not matter. I have no way to an other-than-You. I am an abject lover.... There can be no distance for me. Nearness and distance are one.... A servant of pure heart will bow to no other than You.”
--Mansur Al-Hallaj, The TaSin of Before-Time and Ambiguity
In the beginning, I was a word in his mouth. I slept under his soft, wet tongue. I came out wet, like a human baby, but I was smokeless fire, and I burned his saliva caul away. When the magma slowed and the earth cooled down and mist rose white off the black stopped magma, He pointed and said, That was what you looked like. Only what’s black there was blaze.
I remember he took me riding in the whirlwind once. I was the only angel invited inside it. Its cockpit was a noiseless sphere, see-through. We went around inspecting the underbellies of black holes for signs of light. He said, Here, Azazil, you can steer.
I had my arms crossed over my chest. My knees touched my elbows. I was scared to touch the walls circling me.
Be Me, Azazil, and will it left.
The whirlwind banked. I was, like all the angels back then, Him.
But I was different than the other angels, though I did not know it yet. Closer.
Jibril asked me, eyeing my wind-mad hair, “What does that mean, ‘Be Me’? We can’t be Him. To say we and He are the same…that’s blasphemous.”
The others nodded to either side of him. He was their leader. And that was only right. He was, after all, one of them.
“We don’t will as Him, Azazil. He wills for us. We must have misheard.”
These were distinctions. I did not understand distinctions, in those days. I wasn’t far enough away to see Him whole and look down and see me whole and think, those are two different things. Unlike Jibril, I really believed what we recited.
Say: Allah is One….
They saw us as bricks of the same mosque. I saw us as drops of the same wine, and not in the glass, either, but on His tongue, eternally being tasted.
We called our prayer the Unity. They said the Unity to Him, and they said it in unison.
All those voices, saying it at the same time: all wrong.
said the Unity alone. When I said it, one voice said it.
I did not know I was different yet. But He knew.
I was the third living thing He made after light and water. He had not yet decided how far away He wanted angels to stand. So I turned out less…less differentiated than the others.
What I mean is, they were servants, I was a limb.
That is why He entrusted me with dawn.
The Greeks tell a story about Sisyphus. He rolls a heavy stone up a hill, and he gets to the top, and it rolls down the other side, and he has to start over. He’s being punished like that.
I did the same thing, but for me it was an honor. I pushed the sun out of the east sea all the way to noon, then let it roll on its own weight into the west. When I got to noon and the sphere started rolling away from me, I would clap my hands with joy and chase it barefoot down the mosque dome sky.
You cannot handle a star from dawn to noon and not get burned. Even if your hands are made of smokeless fire, you can’t.
Allah said to me, The scar tissue webbing your palms is as beautiful to me as your face.
I was a part of Him. When He cut me off with an ax called Adam, He bled, and I bled. He cried, and I cried.
A servant could have been sent away and called back. I was a limb, and there was no reattaching me.
How can someone be All-Powerful and incomplete at the same time?
I imagine Him turning Adam this way and that, pressing different sides of man to the stump where I used to be.
The Catastrophe happened aeons in. He decided water and light were not life enough for earth.
He wanted the dirt it was made of to live, too.
We were fashioned out of His voice. We came out smokeless fire because that is what thought is, and He alone can say thought raw.
Adam He fashioned out of His blood. He mixed His blood with hard dirt, and the dirt slucked and softened under the heels of His hands.
A new emotion, the first other than ishq I had ever felt, interrupted my love like a hiccough.
It wasn’t envy, not at first. It was disgust.
Not even Jibril was comfortable with things. The planets were matter slums, dumps for elements too clunky to disperse or burn. Earth in particular. It wasn’t like some planets, the gaseous ones, that made their own light. Earth was cosmos clutter.
And there Allah was—kneeling in it, forearms flecked with it.
“These species You’re making,” Jibril worried, “they are going to shed each other’s blood someday. And the blood they shed will be Your own.”
Allah said nothing, busy kneading flesh.
I said nothing. I trusted him, back then.
He brought me there and showed me by moonlight.
I call this species Man.
“Have you named him yet?”
“What are you going to name him?”
I want you to name him, Azazil.
I climbed into His lap and thought about it.
I like that name. Adam he is.
Go closer to him. I brought you here so you get to be the first, Azazil.
"The first to touch him?”
Not yet—he’s still cooling.
“The first to do what, then?”
Bow to him.
Denying Him exhilarated me in a way bliss didn’t.
I had known the word “no” till then only from prayers affirming His Oneness. The same word made us two now.
How odd it felt to use that word in isolation! I took the Unity apart and found blasphemy in one of its components. No.
I was His limb—paralyzed at his side.
We were obedience and ishq, only more ishq. Adam? All obedience. Only through grace, verse, or drugs could that creature ever work himself up into ishq. Ishq even then a feeling, momentary. Not a state.
Allah projected, on the bare white walls of their minds, bulletins, calming images, orders of the day.
There is no God but Me.
Everything depends on Me.
I stared at my mind and saw my own desires streaked there in childish crayon, the receptive purity defaced.
He’s thinking it for me.
That is one definition of blessedness: being thought for.
Which would make damnation having to think for yourself. To steer, to generate, to choose. To pour perceptions into a mind with a hole in its memory. To will.
If willing is suffering, Who wills all? Who was first in the universe ever to will? Who was damned before Azazil?
I joined Him.
How we warred:
Two black bees in a bobbing sunflower.
In the North, the aurora borealis.
On the plains, brushfires; ignis fatuus over water.
Swallows, mated for life, pecking a hawk back into the clouds. Leave our young alone.
Underwater, in chariots drawn by teams of leviathans.
As scorpions in a ring, tails high, circling.
Hemorrhage of ishq and ichor.
Wind passing wind, catching; abruptly torqued. We drilled into the ground as one tornado.
In a sky crosshatched with threads of flash.
Biceps and triceps that pulled at the same elbow.
Panting, wings flaccid, against facing asteroids.
Allahu akbar their warcry, our warcry Allahu akbar. Allah listened in and corrected neither side.
Dog barking at dog across a light year.
A bruise, spreading its blue faith.
In the south, migrations; massacres in the east.
Two stags locked and skidding dustily down a raw-rock mountainside.
Octopi, knotted. Leeches mouth to mouth, sealed.
Eventually He intervened. He had to; I was winning.
I kept a staff of angels to track all the comets in the universe. They broadcast the warning to my forces in the field: New comets, over twenty of them.
Bright boils swelled on the skin of space and ruptured into speed. Hatched, the comets flew in a V for earth.
Except one. The largest broke off and steered for the asteroid where I had pinned Jibril.
When I was hit, Jibril was choking words of pity past my thumbs on his throat.
“He says you’re infected. And you’re infecting the others. He can heal you.”
“Infected?” I did not ease up. And yet—infection—something outside me, acting on me—it would explain everything. “Infected with what?”
I was light years toward hell when I came to. My spine draped like a streamer over the nose of the comet.
I turned in a fitful coma before I finally awoke. So my face burned, too.
The scar tissue webbing your palms, He once told me, is as beautiful to me as your face.
I wonder if that is still true.
Worst burned were my wings and back. They healed as one ridged mound. I went from winged dawn to hunchback.
I had my fellow exiles chip ice scalpels off a lake. It took three days’ surgery to free my wingbone fans. Ashen rubber clung between their storm-snapped umbrella prongs.
I was as landbound as Adam.
Seeing was not much different than not seeing, the darkness was so thick. If you stuck your arm out your hand disappeared. It was like dunking a torch underwater.
You could be standing in a crowd and never know it. That was how He wanted things. Unity was heaven’s principle, atomization, hell’s.
We had joined against Him. Now, to punish us, He kept us apart—from each other, and from Him.
For the first weeks no one said anything.
No stirring addresses out of me, no great monologues, no exhortations. The last thing devastation does is speechify. That would be action.
Despair, at its purest, shuts the body down. That’s why people don’t commit suicide until the upswing. Suicidal is the floor above hell.
We survived by tonguing Qu’rans into the snow, that we might read the text if a sun should rise someday.
We survived in contemplation. In regret.
By sculpting our own scar tissue by burning ourselves anew. By base jumping in the hope our wings might snag the air.
We clawed holes in the snow to find ground. When we found ground, we clawed further, but our world’s core had gone cold.
In cartography. In deriving a whole astronomy from the starlessness over our heads.
We splashed the shallow puddles that melted at our feet. Lift one foot and it flash froze around the other ankle.
Ishq I had in abundance. On ishq we survived. We survived on a ration of five prayers and a thousand tears a day.
I had seen Adam up close. I had seen the hairs that grew out of him—a whole body colonized with black grass. The skin wrinkled at his knuckles, the fingers’ flesh sleeves too long, bunching when they straightened. When he turned in his sleep, the dirt kept a print in his shape.
This was the ugliest thing about him, to an angel. His solidity. How he blocked light instead of intensifying it. How the ground recorded him, and the air swirled in and out of him. He was a bone stuck in the throat of dissolution.
I never said I will not bow. I said I cannot bow.
He wouldn’t ask Adam to violate a law of physics, would He? Yet He asked me to violate a law of metaphysics, and raged when I couldn’t. Acted like it was my choice not to bow in two directions, when it’s the equivalent of standing in two places at the same time.
*"Azazil" originally appeared in The Kenyon Review, and this excerpt is reproduced here by permission of the author.