How great is that darkness

Imagine my delight when I found this record of my favourite author in conversation with my favourite president. This exchange between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson (one of his favourite authors) is an articulate peregrination through contemporary politics, theology and literature. Reading their conversation feels like a glimpse into the kind of exalted correspondence that winds up in a presidential library, or a literary museum.

They talk about a persistent “us versus them” mentality in America, in which Christians are especially implicated. The President asks: “How do you reconcile the idea of [...] taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Ms Robinson replies: “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity [...]. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” She goes on to say that “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

Meanwhile, in a lecture named for his favourite Prime Minister, our recent Prime Minister has argued that Christianity must disown itself in order to preserve itself. Or at least that the West should disown Christianity's central idea in order to preserve its Christian character. “Love thy neighbour,” runs his argument, was never meant to apply to people who are not like us, whose preservation might require our sacrifice. Christ, no. Mr Abbott might do well to heed the warning Robinson gives in her new essay “Fear,” which she and Obama discuss: “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity [...] they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like ‘everlasting.’”

Give birth again to the dream

Like Beyonce, Richard Blanco’s poem for Obama’s second inauguration got mixed reviews, but I’m ranged with those who liked it. It was simple and heartwarming, and it comprehended much that was unsaid in its arcs and gestures. It had lovely lines like this one “We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight / of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,” and sweet images of America’s streets and towns and classrooms and backyards abuzz with life. One of its naysayers was The Guardian’s Carol Rumens, who concluded that “the biggest problem with writing a public poem is that crude simplifications are forced on a reluctant poet.” I think it’s a mistake to assume simplifications are crude. Simplifications are the stuff of poetry, and poetry is the stuff of public occasion. If anything, poetry fits public utterance better than prose, since it can smooth without blunting the rough edges of history; it can exhume pain from experience and make it holy; it can be subversive without being threatening; it can sound authentically hopeful. More so than the best speech, poetry can glide clear of cynicism. Beyond the last double-tongued word of oratory, poetry can refresh the promise of language itself, and therefore of the world.

This is what the best inaugural poems can do, and Blanco’s was no exception. Indeed it was similar, in tone and theme, to both Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” (which I wrote about a couple of years ago) and Maya Angelou’s poem for Clinton’s first inaugural in 1993 (which I’ve mentioned in passing). All three poems are about struggle, unity, love, fulfillment of the American dream in its waking world. But there is a progression, from Angelou’s grand, primal evocation of time immemorial, through Alexander’s moral yearning toward history, to Blanco’s humble memorial to the diurnal. Are inaugural poems a good way to measure the movement of the zeitgeist? And if so, do these three line up to show a loss of ambition toward immortality? A diminishing of the dream? I don’t know. But of the three, on reflection I like Angelou’s best, and I have a feeling it will wear better than the others, as eternity tends to do. Here it is.

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers--desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot ...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours--your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.