With thanks to Benjamin Roman; read his commentary on the same poem
Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes (from Poetry)
Ignorance will carry me through the last days,
the blistering cities, over briny rivers
swarming with jellyfish, as once my father
carried me from the car up the tacked carpet
to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.
The line between our being good or bad is razor thin. The same conventionality which molds and preserves also traps and manipulates, pushing us to fatal ends. It’s hard for anyone who gives a damn not to be consumed by rage. The people who have transformed our world for the better have almost always been told they’re wrong every step of the way, denied just treatment, precisely because they were right.
If one must deal with what feels like a relentless lack of respect, one needs a sort of ignorance. It’s an ignorance that might be the heart of faith, a childlike innocence seeking refuge in simply being. But it has overtones of knowledge of ignorance. To try and reason about the whole – why is the world ending? What did/can I do? – is to attempt creating a cosmology and understanding its significance precisely. To avoid that trap is not childlike faith. It’s a maturity about what human intelligence can and cannot achieve.
That, I think, addresses why we’re reading this poem. One might wonder about its setting. Blistering cities, briny rivers: there’s a Biblical flood with overtones of global warming, i.e. it is entirely man-made. Death and justice are firmly linked in this rendering. That, I have learned, is questionable. Linking death and justice is an event in Greek thought about religion. It occurs at least in Homer, Hesiod, and Plato. Homer might be the best example: the gods in the Iliad reside in a world without law, as only their machinations and their taking bribes rule it. Those same gods worry about being honored and the achievements of man surpassing their own. Regarding man, there is fear of death, but no strict connection between death, justice, and an afterlife. The gods do not govern a moral order. Any sort of glory will do for enjoying this life and being remembered later. Odysseus’ achievement in the Odyssey is to bring knowledge and fear of Hades to people who do not know him. He creates a connection between death and justice, bringing about morality as we understand it.
Yes, there is something horribly conventional about automatically connecting death with how one will be remembered, or what life might be like in an unknown realm. Yet there’s something natural about it, too. What’s natural is understanding that, to some degree, whatever judges our life does stand outside of us. We’ll watch the world end, knowing it is and isn’t the product of a million different injustices. Our judgment can only go so far when cities boil and rivers rise. We can remember being treated with love, carried in what seems now too structured, too pure (“tacked,” “white”). We were happy once, though, and in placing hope beyond, we hope at this moment to be graceful.