Monday, June 27, 2005

God and Karl Shapiro

Lately I've been digesting a poet with whom I have had only a passing relationship - Karl Shapiro (1913-2000). I wish I had gotten to know his work earlier, for it is filled with unforgettable images of necropolae, automobiles crashing, and under all, the haunting presence of Jehovah.

He ponders the alchemical order and power of the Hebrew letters in "The Alphabet" (1958). Which manages to evoke theophany, order, limits, persistence, heritage, holocaust, palimpsest, and atonement in the space of its first twelve lines.

"The letters of the Jews are strict as flames
Or little terrible flowers lean
Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages,
Singing through solid stone the sacred names.
The letters of the Jews are black and clean
And lie in chain-line over Christian pages.
The chosen letters bristle like barbed wire
That hedge the flesh of man,
Twisting and tightening the book that warns.
These words, this burning bush, this flickering pyre
Unsacrifices the bled son of man
Yet plaits his crown of thorns."

Can any Christian read that and not wonder and wince simultaneously? Another theologically nuanced and compelling poem is "The Crucifix in the Filing Cabinet" (1958). Finding a crucifix in said cabinet, he writes:

"I found a velvet bag sewn by the Jews
For holy shawls and frontlets and soft thongs
That bind the arm at morning for great wrongs
Done in Pharaoh's time. The crucifix

I dropped down in the darkness of this pouch,
Thought tangled with thought and chain with chain,
Till time untie the dark with greedy look,
Crumble the cross and bleed the leathery vein."

I would easily surrender a superfluous body part to craft a poem like that. It steers me to Romans 10:1, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved." Or perhaps Romans 10:26, "And so all Israel will be saved," sadly knowing, however, that Paul is no universalist, even towards his own people.

Karl Shapiro has gifted us with an evocation of the dark, but intertwined relationship between the Christian and the Jew, and it is an image both troubling and yet hopeful.


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