Paul Hoover, “To the Choirmaster”

The rock lives in the desert, solid, taking its time. I’m jealous. I feel torn, unable to take time. As time wastes away, I am paralyzed, stymied by sheer amounts to do. So much must be done for survival; for reaching out and being of use to others; for the cultivation of one’s mind. Three sets of priorities, each conflicting with each.

How does one begin to believe in oneself? It doesn’t seem one could ever be unified enough to do that.

Habbakuk himself starts with a form of “What is justice?” He asks why he must suffer it: How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you “Violence!” but you do not save? (Habbakuk 1:2) The self is a unity when it recognizes itself as pained. It is a unity when it witnesses injustice, sees the pain of others: Why do you make me look at injustice? (1:3)

The Lord does answer Habbakuk, but does so in terms of political prophecy. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. (1:6) The unjust will meet the might of the unjust, themselves less human and more an instrument of God’s will. The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. (2:17) One’s wrongdoing, of necessity, is not free of consequences. This latter verse is almost some kind of personal, philosophical comment, but it is expressed in terms unmistakably political.

In his paraphrase of Habbakuk, Hoover wonders if the Lord has truly answered him. He puts Habbakuk’s discovery of resolve in terms neither prophetic or political, but from seeing himself as a being among beings. Justice matters, but it is the possibility that Habbakuk could ever experience something like justice that’s the fundamental issue:

 To the Choirmaster (from poetryfoundation.org)
 Paul Hoover

 Art thou not from everlasting,
     O Lord my God, my Holy One?
         We shall not die.

 The rock lives in the desert, solid, taking its time.
 The wave lives for an instant, stable in momentum
 at the edge of the sea, before it folds away.
 Everything that is, lives and has size.
 The mole sleeps in a hole of its making,
 and the hole also lives; absence is not nothing.
 It didn’t desire to be, but now it breathes
 and makes a place, for the comfort of the mole.
 I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely
 and of a certain age, in the everlasting.
 In the fierce evening, on the mild day,
 How long shall I be shaken?

 (Habakkuk) 

The wave lives for an instant, stable in momentum at the edge of the sea, before it folds away. For Habbakuk, the wave is no less than the rock. Both take time, using it to exist in different ways. Everything that is, lives and has size—”size,” in this meditation, seems an outgrowth of time. Space is how we reside in a temporal universe.

This set of thoughts leads to a Heideggerian sort of conclusion: The mole sleeps in a hole of its making, and the hole also lives; absence is not nothing. “Absence is not nothing” sounds a strangely, powerfully reassuring note. If one feels like one is absent, abandoned, not treated well, not taken seriously, one still is. One resides.

Being which finds a reason for being does justice. It gives, it nurtures, it becomes a locus of justice: It [the space] didn’t desire to be, but now it breathes and makes a place, for the comfort of the mole. Habbakuk finds confidence in his own voice. He knows his pain is sincere, and that’s not mere comfort, but the right, not the privilege, to demand of God an account of His ways: I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely and of a certain age, in the everlasting. In the fierce evening, on the mild day, How long shall I be shaken? One could say this existential affirmation of Habbakuk’s stands prior to any revelation, but “How long shall I be shaken?” is rhetorical at this juncture. Habbakuk knows under what conditions he will be happy. He knows why he must be unhappy.

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