Milton’s God (from Poetry)
Where I-95 meets the Pike,
a ponderous thunderhead flowered;
stewed a minute, then flipped
like a flash card, tattered
edges crinkling in, linings so dark
with excessive bright
that, standing, waiting, at the overpass edge,
the onlooker couldn’t decide
until the end, or even then,
what was revealed and what had been hidden.
The action of this poem: one who only stands and waits observes a thundercloud becoming illuminated by the sun.
There is nothing quiet about it. The highways at the opening hold teeming human masses, a human order and disorder. Above, “a ponderous thunderhead flowered.” The cosmic and the natural – two things we don’t really grasp – have an order and disorder of their own, threaten and enliven us both at once. “Ponderous” is the curious word. I’m reading into it to get the idea of the cosmic, but the word itself means weighty, ungainly, solemn. It’s a very earthy word with implications of wisdom and thinking a lot about something.
So that huge thundercloud “stewed.” And then it totally didn’t matter. It “flipped like a flash card;” the sun came out and the intensity of its light was such that the cloud did not merely melt. It showed itself, maybe, to be seen an entirely other way by another order, one beyond the cosmic and the natural. It took me a while to grasp the significance of “flash card;” I think the key is how trivial an image it is, not just that the answer lies on the other side. The light, to be sure, makes the cloud look like it is starting to melt (“tattered edges crinkling in”), but then the cloud “flips” – its edges can’t be seen anymore, nor can the cloud itself, as the “linings [are] dark with excessive bright.”
The flipping of the cloud is twofold. The object we somewhat recognize as part of our world, the sense that object makes, doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that it stewed, it doesn’t matter that it was dark. It is trivial in some other scheme. But that leads to the second issue – we have no idea what that scheme is. We just see radiance completely submerge what we recognize. The “flip” merely indicates something much larger, much grander, much more awesome is beyond our world, our universe.
It feels like there is an answer, somewhere. But what is the question? What’s funny about it all is that this is an entirely natural happening. The natural (the thunderhead) invited the cosmic speculation (“ponderous”). It almost was an unnecessary prelude to a seemingly miraculous, definitely blinding event. That last statement isn’t quite right, though. On first glancing this poem, I wanted to say that this is a restatement of the idea that divine things stand analogous to the natural or human. I wanted to say that the natural is indicative of the supernatural, weirdly enough. The emphasis, though, is on the quiet presentness of the divine. The puzzlement for the onlooker extends “until the end, or even then.” This strange arrangement – “then” could be a moment during the illumination or after the “end” of it – reminds of the other onlooker who acts in time, in our natural order. His justice and goodness flow from the beginning, but judgment only exists when all is said and done. That any such presence of his is awesome and makes no sense is precisely what should be expected, though it never is.