I was going to begin this series with Amit Majmudar, who writes from outside the Christian tradition but whose work, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, is “Christ-haunted.” Instead I’ve decided to begin with the Catholic poet William Baer. I may get back to Majmudar (and other writers whose faith commitments are a bit nebulous) in a twenty-first post.
Born in 1948, William Baer studied at Rutgers and New York University before completing a Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina under the poet James Dickey. He was the inaugural editor of The Formalist (1990-2004) and is the author of five volumes of poems, a number of works of film criticism, various collections of interviews with other poets and several plays. He lives in Evansville with his wife and two children and is currently the Melvin M. Peterson Endowed Chair at the University of Evansville.
His first book of poems, The Unfortunates (1997), won the T.S Eliot Prize in Poetry. In this volume, Baer eschews the fragmented lyric, which was coming into its own at the time (and is still too popular, as Marjorie Perloff rightly complains). Instead he offers tragic portraits in straightforward narrative of the broken lives of “everyday” individuals, from a local prosecutor who no longer believes in justice and a young man tempted by cults to a woman dying in a hospital and an unhappy librarian.
In “Breaking and Entering,” for example, a common criminal reflects on the idea of home in the middle of a burglary:
When he was done, he sat in their living room:
as always, he’d made certain they’d be away,
and checked for dogs, alarms, and nosy neighbors,
then glass-cut through a window in the back—
ready with the knife he’d never used
(but would)—and quickly packed her gold and stones,
their small antiques, and the “knock-out” Tiffany lamp—
which these dull bastards certainly didn’t deserve.
But he liked their quiet house, just as he’d liked
his parents’ best when they were sound asleep,
no nagging, fighting, or banging him about.
Some “sneaks” enjoy the breaking in—“like sex”
they say—while others crave the risks, or just the goods,
but he liked sitting in their living rooms,
until, at last, he’d slit their couches open, and leave.
Too bad. He liked it here; it felt like home.
Baer offers no hope of redemption in these poems as if to force us to come to terms with the deeply-rooted problem of human brokenness–something we Americans, with our self-help books and day-time talk shows, want solved before the next chapter or commercial. At the same time, small paradoxes, like the criminal breaking into a home in order to “steal” a sense of home–a sense, ironically enough, that is marked by the absence (or silence) of others–show us that to make peace with our brokenness is to be a divided or irrational self.
In other volumes, Baer addresses redemption head on. Psalter (2011), for example, is a wonderful book of devotional poems on selected books and characters from the Old and New Testaments. In “Genesis,” the opening poem of the volume, Baer retells God’s miraculous creation of “a corporeal universe”:
with stars, and with a whirling spot of blue,
with countless creatures of the day and the night,
in which there was, beneath the skies above,
a creature, in God’s image, yet not alone,
a male, a female, with understanding and love,
with a deathless soul, with free will of its own.
Man-made creation, on the other hand, which attempts to replace rather than imitate God’s original creative act and divine order ends in chaos. “What becomes of a scheming innovator,” Baer writes,
who falsely sacrifices before our feasts,
who countermands the will of his creator
and claims that all are holy, and all are priests?
The answer: “The earth will open, and those who still rebel / will tumble into the flaming pits of hell.”
Yet, there are those who do not “still rebel.” In “Adam,” for example, after the father recognizes the full force of his rebellion against God, he does not despair, but rather turns to God in faith:
He’d seen this thing before, of course, but never like this.
After Eden, he’d found a swan lying motionless and silent,
forever rotting, irretrievable, and gone.
But now, it’s his boy, the brother of Cain, the shepherd son,
the kind and faithful friend of He-Who-Is,
lying quiet and slain: finished, futureless, at the end of his end.
Once, Adam had named the names, and named his own two sons,
and named this curse, which mullifies and terminates, as: “death.”
But he who’d known the awesome power of God looked to the skies,
knowing, without a doubt, though nothing was said,
his God both could and would undo the dead.
This poem’s simple diction can hide a nuanced contrast. Adam had indeed “named the names” and “his own two sons.” In this, he imitated God. Naming is a creative act–one that in human usage identifies being (whereas with God it creates being). Adam’s silence in the creation story at the Tree of Good and Evil, however, and his subsequent transgressive act, resulted in death. The word, which he is forced to coin because of his one original act, fills his mouth and cuts his wind–it “mullifies and terminates.” In this silence (“nothing was said”), however, Adam turns to God, resubmitting himself and his language to Him. The poem, in turn, fittingly ends in metaphor: God, Adam knows, will “undo the dead.”
One criticism of Baer’s work is that it lacks formal depth or metaphorical richness. While Baer’s focus narrative can sometimes divert his attention from formal possibilities, like Frost, Baer’s seeming simplicity can be deceptive. His work is both accessible and complex, immediately pleasurable and a great tool for private and public devotion.
Books of Poetry by William Baer:
The Unfortunates (1997)
Borges and Other Sonnets (2003)
“Bocage” and Other Sonnets (2008)