With thanks to Deandra Lieberman
First Things First (from The Poetic Quotidian)
Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened
To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark
Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober,
Set to work to unscramble that interjectory uproar,
Construing its airy vowels and watery consonants
Into a love-speech indicative of a Proper Name.
Scarcely the tongue I should have chosen, yet, as well
As harshness and clumsiness would allow, it spoke in your praise,
Kenning you a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind
With power to tame both real and imaginary monsters,
Likening your poise of being to an upland county,
Here green on purpose, there pure blue for luck.
Loud though it was, alone as it certainly found me,
It reconstructed a day of peculiar silence
When a sneeze could be heard a mile off, and had me walking
On a headland of lava beside you, the occasion as ageless
As the stare of any rose, your presence exactly
So once, so valuable, so very now.
This, moreover, at an hour when only to often
A smirking devil annoys me in beautiful English,
Predicting a world where every sacred location
Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do,
Misinformed and thoroughly fleeced by their guides,
And gentle hearts are extinct like Hegelian Bishops.
Grateful, I slept till a morning that would not say
How much it believed of what I said the storm had said
But quietly drew my attention to what had been done
—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern
Against a leonine summer—, putting first things first:
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
Is the Christian God being praised? That was my initial thought. “First Things” in the title keeps that a guiding assumption. The “storm enjoying its storminess” would be a pagan god. But the Proper Name of the first stanza is mere air and water, two elements quite conspicuous in the Creation and Flood stories.
That Proper Name in the second stanza helps articulate the formerly pagan powers. The audience being addressed (“you”) is named “a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind.” The powers of mystery and passion are ascribed to him. Moreover, he is indicated as having a “poise of being” that is the landscape itself. The name hints at hope (“green”) and a fortune that is Providence (“blue” reminds of the “sky”).
The third stanza gives us fire and earth (“lava”) in addition to air and water. Indirectly, one could say the revelation of the first three stanzas has happened through air alone. Invisibility and revelation of an intensely personal value are joined in that “day of peculiar silence when a sneeze could be heard a mile off.” The pagan gods had real powers, but the point of worshipping God isn’t power. All the elements which compose this world and the most beautiful growth may hearken to higher purpose, but what we need might be something quieter, closer, present.
What is the devil’s taunt? That all religions, including Christianity, will sink into the ground. Clergy of any sort may be “Hegelian.” It isn’t that they lie. They have to assume they have the truth, that belief is knowledge, in order to have the position they hold in this world. That may not hold for more run-of-the-mill believers, especially in a time of liberal democracy. Providence for “Hegelian bishops” may not just be hope, but the unfolding of absolute Idea, the trust in a rationality that certainly can’t be confirmed.
The result of the storm and the existential meditation on faith isn’t an immediate love. Our speaker is alone with the morning. But he is left with perhaps the most Providential sign. If the first three stanzas concerned air, the last is the promise of water. This God doesn’t judge like the devil or overpower like the pagan deities. The best things can wait.