Scott Cairns has been around. Born in Washington, Cairns studied in Virginia and Utah and taught in Ohio, Texas and now Missouri; and while he grew up Baptist, he turned to Presbyterianism and the Episcopal church before joining the Greek Orthodox. His work shows a mind sensitive to life’s manifold sufferings and joys.
In 2009, I described Cairns as taking on the role of a “slow pilgrim” in his poems. He is “slow to hear, slow to believe,” a “‘slow learner’ who, like a tortoise that cannot be paper trained, either admits his own slowness “utterly / ashamed” or dismisses it with “an honest shrug”:
Elsewhere, he is a doubting Thomas. Echoing Emily Dickinson’s remark that “’Faith’ is a fine invention / For Gentlemen who see! / But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency,” Cairns writes: “I remember hearing that soft-soap / about faith being given / only to the faithful–mean trick, / if you believe it.” For Cairns, “fickleness / of belief is unavoidable.” This is both a fact and an indictment of our sinful nature.
Unlike Dickinson, however, Cairns’ response to this “fickleness / of belief” is not to propose a microscopic examination of the universe. Instead, he proposes a meditative repetition of, and reflection on, the words of Christ. For him, this produces a slowness of another kind–one that is not stubborn or dull but characterized by meticulous care. It is a slowness that allows him to see God, who, he recognizes, has been with him all along despite his doubts. As he writes good-naturedly in one of his later poems, “As We See,” which is clearly a response to his former self and to Dickinson:
Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek
is not so much invisible as we
are ill-equipped to apprehend His grave
proximity. Suppose our fixed attention
serves mostly to make evident the gap
dividing what is seen and what is here.
For Cairns, too much time in the laboratory has left us blurry-eyed and ironically “ill-equipped” to “apprehend” God’s presence. In the end, the sort of scrutiny that Dickinson proposes becomes, according to Cairns, a form of looking away from God rather than looking to Him, “mindful” and “still.”
An example of this looking to God is found in one of Cairns’ best poems, “The Holy Ghost.” In the poem, Cairns describes an experience he had while out rowing in the Chesapeake: “There were so many distractions along that narrow bay, / so many nearly invisible coves you would not find unless your boat was slow enough to let you trace the seam.”
My fortune was the little coracle I had occasion
to row across the inlet. In retrospect, the chore
appears habitual, as if whole seasons had been measured
by my pulling against my grip on the chirping oars,
watching my wake’s dissolution, its twin arms opening
to a retreating shore. And, true enough, I may have crossed
that rolling gulf many times each day in fair weather. Still,
I suspect this part I remember best happened once:
I am rowing steadily enough, davening across
that bay and reaching the choppy center where I pause,
ostensibly to rest. But the breeze also stops, and a calm
settles upon those waters so suddenly I worry
for my breath, and can hardly take it in. And I am struck
by a fear so complete it seems a pleasure,
and I know if I were to look about—though I know better
than to try—I would find the circle of shoreline gone
For Cairns, his “habitual” rowing over the same waters day in and day out is akin to the believer’s habitual, meditative return to the “living water” of Christ. Most often, nothing happens. Every once in a while, however, or, perhaps, once in a lifetime, everything is trans-formed, and we feel that we are in the very presence of God Almighty. We become, like Cairns does here, Peter stepping out on the water to meet Jesus, or the woman at the well returning day after day to the same stinking well only to find Christ Himself, waiting there with the provocative offer of water without end. In both cases, the encounter with Christ, however brief or problematic, comes to pass only after Peter and the woman step out to meet Christ. Thus, refusing an absolute fissure between the material and spiritual worlds, Cairns suggests that faith is as much action as it is belief.
Such moments are, of course, rare, and Cairns ends “The Holy Ghost” with the frank admission that his experience of God’s presence was all too brief:
Well, it didn’t last. A little air got in, and I sucked it up,
and the boat lifted, almost rocking, across a passing swell.
The shoreline was called back to its place, its familiar shape,
and there were people on it, and I think a couple of dogs.
However, as Cairns writes in “Setting Out,” “even the slowest pil-grim might / articulate a turn. Given time enough, // the slowest pilgrim–even he–might / register some small measure of belated // progress” (130). In other words, no one ever said that following Christ would be easy. No one ever said that it would be painless. We are simply asked to “come,” follow Christ, and open ourselves to His transformative power.
I think this is still an accurate characterization of his work, but Cairns is also more than a fellow pilgrim; he is a prophet of sorts–not foretelling the future, of course, but speaking the truth of God’s sovereignty and grace to us backsliding followers. In “Bad Theology: A Quiz,” for example, Cairns begins with a few historically difficult propositions regarding God:
Whenever we aver “the God is nigh,”
do we imply that He is ever otherwise?
When, in scripture, God’s “anger” is said
to be aroused, just how do you take that?
He moves from these more academic questions to ones a bit closer to home. The poem, in this sense, shows us how we too often hide a selfish and unloving heart with “good” theology, which, as the title of the poem coyly announces, is indeed bad theology:
If another sins, what is that to you?
When the sinful suffer publicly, do you
find secret comfort in their grief, or will
you also weep? they are surely grieving;
are you weeping now? Assuming sin is sin,
whose do you condemn? Who is judge? Who
will feed the lambs? The sheep? Who, the goats?
Who will sell and give? Who will be denied?
Whose image haunts the mirror? And why
are you still here? What exactly do you hope
to become? When will you begin?
Hard questions, but ones Cairns rightly asks us to take to heart.
Books of Poetry: