Lamentations and poetry’s high calling

Perhaps it’s this illness, but my mind is a windowless basement. At the moment, a bit feverish, pallid, shaky—on the broader realm, the memory for spelling, for names, for words, receding, the disappointments, harder, the distractions, more enticing. Am I alone to think that here, early December, deep winter has arrived?

I need comfort. Spiritual comfort, heart comfort. I need a light burden, an easy yoke.

Yet when I turn on the radio I find myself sitting with my face in my hands listening to a journalist talk of the killings in Central African Republic. “A genocide,” the spokesperson says, “is trending.” Tribal and economic divisions are fast hardening along religious lines. Muslim militia and mercenaries fighting the Christian pick-up armies. Reprisals, always reprisals.

In Bossangoa, 40,000 people have taken refuge in a Catholic mission. The bishop and Imam are still friends and are urging peace while, not far away, a mother is being hacked to death; on her back, an infant is screaming. It will be silenced.

I didn’t need to hear that. And I didn’t need to know young men are being bound and thrown into crocodile infested waters, that girls are enduring the debauched wont of militia and marauding gangs, that children are valued soldiers, “because they believe they are invincible.”

Who needs to hear this? And once heard, what do I do? What’s my responsibility to feel, to say, to act, to give, to sign something, to shout at someone to stop it. To shout at God. To make a deal. To fast and pray, wondering if these small invocations are effectual.

CAR refugees2

And why do I feel I need to pass it on, here, on this small space? Doesn’t passing it on simply bring more darkness? How will mercy grow out of any of this?

And isn’t it a western luxury to even have the time and distance to ponder the questions? To write about what rises. To make something out of raw emotions, some art, to write something down. To write a poem about it.

Is this an honest need, an honest human response? Or is it brutish?

Is this how Adorno felt? when he dashed off: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch.” It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. I see how the statement makes immediate sense. And then, on reflection, how it falls apart. How Adorno has it wrong.

For it’s only through art and language that we can grapple with maniac, indifferent violence. This kind of empty madness needs emotional purging, for the sake of sanity.

This morning, before light arrives, mindful of Bossangoa, deserted but for the Mission and Mosque, I read the five lyric poems of Lamentations:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.

Farther in, the poet becomes personal…

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
and all that I had hoped for from the LORD.”
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!

Reading these laments you feel the author’s struggle. The struggle to render overwhelming calamity into language. For these poets, victims and witnesses to depraved oppression, it’s either writhe-and-write, or die.

The imagery of Lamentations is all about fragmentation and discontinuity. There’s no clear narrative structure to give shape to the raw emotions expressed, nor is there, as you often find in the laments of Psalms, a rhetorical movement from grief to hope. Everything says suffering.

I check a commentary and find that most of this poetry is composed in “qinah,” a meter in which the lines are unbalanced, giving a sense of language “broken off in grief.”

I also discover, that in contrast to this grim sense of fragmentation, the structures of the poetic form itself produce a strong sense of coherence. I’m told that these are alphabetic acrostic poems—a formal scheme where, if I read Hebrew, I would find that each stanza begins with successive letters of the alphabet. The commentary concludes:

“To contain the poet’s fragmented lyrics within the frame of the alphabetic acrostic, thus becomes the attempt to control and contain, and ultimately to transform, the suffering and hurt that engulfed Jerusalem and its inhabitants.”

Perhaps, far from being barbaric, this is poetry’s higher calling. Perhaps, somehow, mercy takes root here.


  1. Oh Stephen,
    It is not just your words, but the topics that inspire you to take pen to paper. And your breadth of knowledge is to be respected greatly. As always, I read with admiration.
    For some of us, the news of the world weighs heavy. Some can be oblivious, but I cannot. At times I wish I could.
    I do love poetry and wish I had time to read more of it. I love to write, and wish I could express what is in my mind, my emotions, my concerns the way you can.
    But I am blessed that you share your thoughts in writing with us.

  2. I think your words, Stephen, are the expression of what this season of Advent is about…the desperate longing, the deep hurts and grief of life in this fallen world, the almost overwhelming sense of our need and the accompanying despair at the lack of answers. And then, Jesus came into this turbulent world, walking among and loving the violent and the victims, the privileged and the oppressed. In your words I remember that this season of sorrow is also one of hope, even if I can’t see it with my eyes. I read it in your words and feel it coming from your heart and it is expressed not only with your pen, but with the life you have given for so many. A blessed Advent to you, Stephen.

  3. You’ve put into words what I have been feeling so often lately. We listen, face in hands, and wish we didn’t have to hear it at all–the price we pay for being able to know what is happening on the other side of the world is pain, and more pain. But then I keep telling myself that the knowledge is half of the cure. Awareness has changed the course of things, sometimes even for the better. We have to come through all of this to some other side, where things make sense, and to do that, knowing comes first. Your words, Stephen, are part of the cure. And when they can’t cure, just as with a loved one who is dying of a terminal disease, they can ease the pain. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Thank you so much Ann. I like that you linked Advent with this post. The interminable suffering, and yet the hope that something will rise out of the words (the logos) themselves, reflect the aim of Lamentations.

  5. Thank you Sally. Rowan Williams has a book entitled “The Wound of Knowledge” (which is taken from a poem by R.S. Thomas). This parallels something of what you’re saying. Knowing is injurious and yet it is how any healing begins. Thank you again for your words.

  6. Thanks for finding words to express vague heavy emotions that plagued me this morning when I read of a human tsunami at Lebanon-pain for those arriving and pain for those receiving the human wave. All this disintegration – yet there is field of psychology titled Positive Disintegration for personal moral development. I feel better when I wonder if this principle would be applicable at the international level.

  7. And thank you Raymond for your thoughts! As for Positive Disintegration, of which I know basically nothing, we can only hope and pray that world growth might come out of universal anxiety. Thanks for your noting and wondering.

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