Questions for Ecclesiastes
By Mark Jarman
Story Line Press 100 pp. $10 paper

The literary climate in the twentieth century has not been notably hospitableto religious poetry. Indeed, one might assert that the tradition, which
in English peaked with Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, and Milton, has been in
decline, despite the relatively late appearance of a poet as gifted as
Gerard Manley Hopkins. Granted, such poets as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden
based some of their most important works (one thinks particularly of “The
Four Quartets” in Eliot’s case, and of “Horae Canonicae”
in Auden’s) on Christian convictions. Even then, though, it was clear that
these poets were writing for a public-the increasingly limited public of
poetry readers and writers-that was at best indifferent to, and often hostile
toward, Christianity.

It is an encouraging sign, then, to come across a new book of verse
as stylistically accomplished and direct in its grapplings with matters
of faith as Mark Jarman’s Questions for Ecclesiastes. This is the seventh
book of poetry from Jarman, who teaches at Vanderbilt University and who
has also received attention as an editor and critic. The title alludes
to that book of the Bible so beloved by skeptics and pessimists, for the
questions Jarman poses in poem after poem are challenges to the Preacher’s
resigned acceptance, and to his famous assertion that “all is vanity.”
Jarman poses these questions most directly and memorably in the title
poem, which tells the story of a preacher (Jarman’s father) visiting a
couple whose daughter has just committed suicide. The poem incorporates
the things this preacher does not say, but that the biblical Ecclesiastes
does-“the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with
hearing,” “the dead know not anything for the memory of them
is forgotten,” “live joyfully . . . all the days of the life
of thy vanity . . . for that is thy portion in this life”-all of which
would have been cold comfort to this couple in their loss. The poem’s complex
weaving of sympathetic imaginings, personal remembrances, naturalistic
descriptions, and biblical quotations is evident in its concluding stanza

Still that night exists for peo-
ple I do not know in ways I
do not know, though I have
tried to imagine them. I
out and my father
coming back. The fog, like
the underskin of a
broken wave, made a low
ceiling that the street
lights pierced and illumi-
ment, with every secret
thing, whether it be good or
could have shared what he
knew with people who
needed urgently to hear it,
God kept a secret.

God is as much an absence as a presence for Jarman; in this sense he
is an eminently modern poet. The conversation is never, as it sometimes
was with earlier poets, two-sided. On the other hand, Jarman does speak
of, and sometimes to, God with a directness one could be forgiven for having
thought no longer possible. Certainly it is not currently fashionable.
Almost as keenly regretted as God’s silence is the inevitable passage
of time. There is throughout the book a feeling of melancholy and of nostalgia,
a sense of a world surrounded by the threat of extinction. There are references
throughout to mist, sleep, night, the ocean-all symbols, for Jarman, of
an encroaching nothingness. This is not to say that the volume is joyless,
but that the joy is made keener through knowledge of the things that overwhelm
or threaten to overwhelm it. In “A.M. Fog,” a meditation on the
title subject leads the poet back to a scene from his youth.

I remember a gang of friends
Racing a fog bank’s onslaught along the beach.
Seal-slick, warm from the sun
This thing would eat, they
ran laughing.
The fog came on. And they
were beautiful,

The three boys and one girl,
still in her wetsuit,
And the dissolution overtak-
ing them,
Their stridency, full of faith,
still audible.

At heart, though, this is a book about family, or rather, the complex
relationship between faith and family. Indeed, though the poet dwells persistently,
almost obsessively, on the theme of families, and on their kindnesses and
cruelties, the book is saved from the bathos common to confessional poetry
by the larger view afforded by Christian faith. In “Last Suppers,”
the tragedy unfolding in Leonardo’s painting and its countless reproductions
is played off the family tragedies and betrayals that happen around the
dinner table. In “Proverbs,” a passage from the biblical book
of the same name provides the starting point for a meditation on sexual
love. And in “Patience,” part of a sequence called “The
Past from the Air,” a child longing for some response to prayer is
juxtaposed with a mother waiting for her absent husband to call from the
road. The linkage between the two predicaments deepens our understanding of both.

The call will come. She
knows his call will come.
Meanwhile, she works and an-
swers children’s questions.
Today one question is, “Why
is God dumb?”
She pauses. Dumb? And puts
a stamp in place.
”Yes,” says the child. “All I
can hear is silence
After I pray.” Inside she notes
the challenge:
If God does not exist, describe
his absence
.
No word. No word. No word.
No word. No word.

Jarman has found his subject, and he has the stylistic resources to
help him explore it. Meter and rhyme have lately been making a comeback,
but their competent use is still rare enough to be noteworthy. Most of
the poems in Questions for Ecclesiastes are written in well-modulated iambic
pentameter or some variation thereof. Those that are not-“Transfiguration,”
”Proverbs,” the title poem-imitate the forms of the biblical
texts on which they are based. The most technically impressive part of
the book, though, is the series of twenty “Unholy Sonnets.” Jarman
has said that the title was chosen to avoid making a presumptuous comparison
between his verses and John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets.” Sonnet two
is, to my mind, the most successful. Here the poet’s metrical technique
is prominently on display, and the confines of the form allow him an opportunity
to display his wit and wordplay, as a child’s game becomes a grim meditation
on mankind’s relationship to God.

Hands folded to construct a
church and steeple,
A roof of knuckles, outer walls of skin,
The thumbs as doors, the fin-
gers bent within
To be revealed, wriggling, as
”all the people,”
All eight of them, enmeshed,
caught by surprise,
Turned upward blushing in
the sudden light,
The nails like welders’ masks,
the fit so tight
Among them you can hear
their half-choked cries
To be released, to be pried
from this mess
They’re soldered into some-
how-they don’t know.
But stuck now they are will-
ing to confess,
If that will ease your grip and
let them go,
Confess the terror they cannot
withstand
Is being locked inside another
hand.

Questions for Ecclesiastes has its faults. Jarman seems at times
(in “Dressing My Daughters,” for example) to drag the divine
in to touch up what would otherwise be an undistinguished poem. The result
is a sameness that becomes evident if one reads too many of the poems at
a stretch. And formally gifted as the poet is, he does on occasion shift
from exact to inexact rhyme in a manner that makes it appear he is not
fully in control of his material. These are minor reservations, however,
given the strengths of the book as a whole.

Bill Coyle is a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, Mass.