Compass of Affection

Compass of Affection: Poems New and SelectedCompass of Affection: Poems New and Selected by Scott Cairns

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often don’t “get” modern poetry, and I’d like to think it’s not from lack of trying. I miss the rhyme and the rhythm that makes poetry fun to read aloud, or I simply don’t pick up on the deeper or more subtle rhythms of contemporary poetry. But I heard that Cairns was supposed to be the greatest Christian poet alive, and that he was Orthodox to boot, so I thought I’d give this a chance. This volume collects poems from several of his previous volumes with some new poetry as well. It wasn’t until the poems from PHILOKALIA (2006) that I started to really enjoy it, to pick up on the symbolism and the meanings, and this likely had to do with the fact that his poems from that point get distinctly religious and distinctly Orthodox. So I had a leg up on deciphering the metaphors, understanding his language. And he does indeed speak the language very well. He has a gift for distilling the mythos and praxis of much of Orthodox spirituality into half a dozen spare lines. As for example when he discusses repentance, in “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Metanoia”, here the last stanza:

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.

“Possible Answers to Prayer” was another favorite and illustrates what Cairns is able to often do when discussing prayer: convict the shallowness of so much contemporary prayer while simultaneously giving a call to the sea depths of true prayer:

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

There was much here I did not understand. There was the frustration I often run into when reading poetry of trying to extract some meaning from a handful of lovely metaphors. But there’s obviously a great deal of wisdom as well.

This passage, from “Late Apocalypse” struck me as well

… I turned and saw before me
seven bright convenience stores, each laden with a hoard
of sugars and of oils, fuels devised by economics to obtain
the most satisfaction with the least actual good . . .

His poetry is not perfectly happy, because the world is broken (and what poet, ever, is perfectly happy?). And yet behind so many of the poems there is a hint of that golden glow in Orthodox icons (which he writes about as well), the light of the world to come, or of this world if we can train the eyes of the heart to see.

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