August 31, 2017 / Perspective
Brett McCracken reviews Look and See, a documentary film focusing on the life and perspective of Wendell Berry.
August 21, 2017
The keen distress of the Israelites held captive in Babylon was expressed strikingly by the poet who wrote Psalm 137.1 His song of lament provides a useful typology for the expression of deep sorrow and righteous anger in the face of injustice.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1–4 NRSV)
I am glad these lines are in the Bible. I am especially grateful for the question at the end, as the psalmist acknowledges the difficulty of singing praise to God during times of sorrow. Paradoxically, this question appears in a piece of Hebrew poetry which is itself a song of lament.
Erin Mouré and the Silent Song
Canadian poet Erin Mouré writes songs of lament wherein she likewise wrestles with the paradox of how silence powerfully communicates grief. Mouré’s startling poetry repeatedly confronts social systems that oppress the human body and spirit. With lyric intensity, she writes about domestic violence in suburban communities, train wrecks in the Rocky Mountains, and the complicity of North American consumers in the unjust labor practices of multinational corporations who exploit workers in the world’s poorest nations. Mouré unsettles readers by stripping off the veneer of everyday normalcy to reveal the pain existing just beneath the surface. Critic Melissa Jacques writes that the “real danger” of Mouré’s poetic imagery “lies in her sensitivity to the issues of equity and power associated with the act of representation. . . . Mouré makes us feel that everything is not fine.”2
The poem “My Own Daughter” is perhaps one of the least alienating of Mouré’s pieces, but even this poem has very dark undertones. Adapting an oral form of the medieval Portuguese ballad or cantiga, in which medieval bards enacted dramatic dialogues and narratives through song and stringed instrument, Mouré presents a mother-daughter dialogue that tells the story of the daughter’s loss in love. The poem opens with a powerful couplet that intentionally varies its spelling in imitation of the medieval form: “My own daughter, heart is what I grieve / to see you so often in tears I griev” (1–2). The mother, who is grieving her daughter’s grieving, highlights the multiple reverberations of sorrow, as a betrayal continually “rends” (3), or tears at, her daughter’s heart. She sees only the consequences, rather than the triggering act, and so asks her daughter: “Why do you go about so sad and crying?” (5). The daughter responds with a refusal of joy, telling her mother she cannot “always” be singing.
The reader hears the adolescent snark in this line, as well as what the mother observes as the daughter’s “great pain” (8). This is where theology, or a clumsy attempt at theodicy, enters the poem, as the mother asks her daughter if a loving God would “allow” such vehement crying out in anguish (10). Yet the daughter refuses comfort, and the mother begins to question the validity of lament itself, to demand that the daughter justify her grief. But the daughter simply repeats her assertion that songs will not always “be ringing” (12), for songs cannot always “be sung” (13).3
In Mouré’s poem, the speaker of the ballad paradoxically sings of the daughter’s inability to sing, thus attempting to articulate the young woman’s grief in translation, through a poetic evocation of her pain. Indeed, how could we expect her to sing cheerfully while dwelling in an exile of grief? The truth of this line echoes the biblical psalmist: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). These lines witness to a level of intense suffering that precludes verbal, sung expression.
Dionne Brand and the Memorial Song
The focus on mourning is also front and center in a recent collection of the Trinidadian-Canadian poet Dionne Brand. In her poetry she both confronts injustice, mourning the multigenerational trauma it perpetuates, and offers the possibility of hope via intergenerational understanding and compassion. Brand presents each poem in her collection Ossuaries as a memorial container honoring past lives now lost, like the reliquaries that house the bones of saints. Her poems keep lament and hope alive by blending spirituals, blues, and protest songs to create new poetic forms. These forms trace the communal traumas caused by slavery and genocide, preserving memories of both suffering and strength.
The poet Sonnet L’Abbé describes Brand’s living lament for violent political repressions in this way:
The desolation of Ossuaries is almost unrelenting, and [the speaker] Yasmine seems to startle herself with bursts of hopefulness that often take forms like petals, calyxes, lemon trees, and fiddleheads. In the “stone pit” of Brand’s awareness of modern massacres, repressions, and regimes, hopefulness is as tender and rare as lavender blossoms in the paved lots of poor suburbs. Ossuaries is a difficult, but beautiful, exhumation, a furious dirge for an era not yet passed.4
The hope that rises from the suffering depicted by Brand in her poetry is thus all the more beautiful, and miraculous, considering the rough terrain from which it springs.
Brand’s concern for modern massacres and repressive regimes, including the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, also surfaces in her novel Love Enough, which depicts a Chilean journalist and songwriter who has found refuge in Canada. The narrator of the novel notes how back in Chile, “It was his singing that got him into trouble, and his guitar. Isador sang songs to friends who had been arrested and disappeared.”5 Honest lament and memorializing are potent and risky activities in situations of political oppression.
Brand’s earlier poem “A Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” is a powerful song of lament that follows this same pattern, moving into notes of praise and hope for the future that are not as evident in Mouré’s ballad.6 But akin to Mouré’s adaptation of a medieval sung ballad, Brand’s blues spiritual is a reappropriation of an older form of song; her revisionary verse incorporates a form that was a theological conveyor of truth and hope for African American slaves, who would sing spirituals as they labored in the fields. In this work, Brand draws on a sung oral tradition of hymnody with powerful familial connections to her own Trinidadian heritage. She is imparting hope into her community, past and present, with her hybrid song.
In Brand’s characteristic mode of what L’Abbé terms “furious dirge,” she declares of Mammy Prater, “she knew the patience of one hundred and fifteen years” (12). Reinvigorating the virtue of patience, the speaker bluntly explains how Prater had the patience “to avoid killing a white man” (14). She continues by expressing gratitude for Mammy Prater’s patience, a patience that enabled the photograph of her at 115, with “those eyes,” eyes that make the reader wonder at the horrors she has seen, at the rapes and murders and physical abuse that she may have witnessed (17).
Brand presents Mammy Prater’s patience under duress as a kind of enduring strength, a model for future generations to not take revenge, as revenge can destroy the one taking vengeance and harm her future descendants. Hope prevails, whereas “a thing like despair which she never called / this name for she would not have lasted” (21–23) is represented as a luxury for those who are privileged enough to not worry about the practical realities of their own day-to-day survival and that of their descendants.
And so while both Mouré and Brand compose powerful songs of lament, Brand is able to move through lament into a stirring evocation of intergenerational hope. She sings a song of memorialization and celebration that preserves the memory not only of Mammy Prater’s physical oppression but also of her spiritual strength. It’s a spiritual endurance meant to encourage future generations.
Margaret Avison and the Song of Hope
The last poet I would like to consider as a singer of honest lament and hope is Margaret Avison, who adds a note of divine grace to her depiction of renewed hope after a time of suffering. The late Margaret Avison was a Presbyterian Canadian poet who worked with homeless populations in the inner city of Toronto, and her poetry reflects her lifelong work in social restoration and justice side-by-side with her growing faith.
As an adult convert, Avison’s faith is full of questions, indicating both a continuing skepticism and a growing wonder at the movement of God in the world. For example, in her poem “Leading Questions,”7 she contemplates the fall in the garden of Eden and asks if it broke God’s heart to witness this betrayal. In “Lament for Byways,” she grieves the loss of old buildings and lanes due to the proliferation of condominium developments in Toronto. After describing the decimation of a boarded-up blue warehouse, she asks of the vacant space left behind, “will we bear with it, white and flat?” (27).8
And within her poem “The Crux,” which is from the same collection, she refers directly to her work with the homeless in the inner city. Here, she queries the reader if he or she has ever seen “somebody hit bedrock” (1). After amplifying the idiomatic phrase “I hit rock bottom,” a common refrain in stories of addiction, Avison asks her readers if they have ever known such a “hopeless” (4) “deadbeat” (7), if they “Know what that’s like yourself?” (8). She then compares the suffering of an addict on the streets to the pain of Christ as a “lamb the wolf had torn” (20). Like Mouré, who depicts the daughter in her ballad as one of rent heart, Avison describes the addict as one torn by the wolves of life. But in distinction from Mouré, Avison locates this point of tearing, through its association with Christ’s broken body on the cross, as an opening of grace, which she represents as light gleaming in through the fissure.
As the poem closes, Avison compares our awareness of our own finitude to that of an infant crying out in need. Rather than sentimentalizing the infant, she represents his self-interestedness comically, as she describes him “twisting” with “urgency” (24). He is a tragicomic figure, expressing the “pangs” and “poignancy” (27) of an Aristotelian hero as he demands that his need for food be met “right now” (30). Avison extends grace toward this infant’s impatience and meets it with love, concluding with an image of a mother rushing to her child in his highchair. When the infant hears “help” (31) approaching, “Hope stills the moment” (32). Indeed, Avison depicts the approach of the infant’s mother metonymically as “heels and spoon” (33), rushing toward the child “in a blissful lurch / towards all tomorrow” (34–35).
Avison thus encourages readers to reflect on God’s maternal care as a source of grace and hope. Again, she implicitly asks us if we have ever felt that way ourselves, if we have ever cried out in helpless need. She wonders whether God has ever responded to our own cri de coeur, whether we have ourselves felt momentarily touched by what she terms “radiance,” glimpsing the point of existence in the light of divine love. In the second half of her poem she moves from the raw, almost desperate, faith expressed in the infant’s cry to a calming and stilling hope inspired by the sound of the mother. The mother’s lurching movement toward her beloved child alludes to Christ’s parable of the prodigal son.
Ultimately, Avison depicts lament over one’s helplessness as a form of faith. Such a lament admits dependency on a force outside of the self and assumes a hearer of the heart’s cry for help. Hitting bedrock in realization of our own finitude creates an openness to external sources of aid that arise from the providence of God. Avison’s clearly Christian voice represents her own experience of absolute reliance on God within a Canadian publishing context where it is often difficult to broach such theological topics as orthodox faith, Christ-centered hope, and divine love.
In A Persevering Witness, Elizabeth Davey notes, “In a cultural and literary environment wary of religious sentiment and expression, [Margaret Avison] is a peculiar figure, garnering acknowledgment and respect—sometimes in spite of her profession of Christian faith, but more often in quiet and bemused recognition of the power of her distinctive words of witness.”9 Through her subtle yet poignant theopoetic imagery in “The Crux,” Avison encourages readers, believers, and seekers to imagine a maternal aspect of divinity, to imagine God as the one who runs to us when we cry out in hope of an answer. In his book on the psalms of lament, Dennis Ngien argues: “The chief function of lament is to provide a structure for crisis, pain, grief, or despair, which in turn facilitates a movement ‘out of the depths’ from hurt to joy, from darkness to light, from desperation to hope, from death to life.”10 Likewise, Avison shows us that hope can emerge from suffering lamented honestly.
Toward a Theopoetics of Lament and Hope
In comparing the poems of Mouré, Brand, and Avison, we see a movement from despondent or even silencing pain to, first, an expression of righteous anger and fortitude in enduring lament and, second, a divine redemptive and regenerative response to lament symbolized through intergenerational bonds of faith, hope, and love.
In Mouré’s “My Own Daughter,” the mother is powerless to help in the face of her daughter’s loss of joy and inability to sing, yet readers sense the mother’s compassionate love and steady listening presence beside her grieving daughter. In Brand’s “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” it is the strength of an older woman from the past, who has survived slavery with a steely gaze, that imbues the poem’s speaker with feminine fortitude even as she laments the lineage of trauma still affecting the African diaspora. In the latter poem, we might glimpse the possibility of theological hope shimmering from the poem’s very beginning via the allusion in its title to the Christian spirituality expressed in African American spirituals. Likewise, the final note of this poem is not despair but mournful endurance and hope for future generations. Then, in Avison’s “The Crux,” the image of a mother’s unconditional love for her crying infant, to whom she rushes like the father in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son, signifies both God’s redemptive grace and the more visible power of human contact in response to our great needs. Avison’s poetic imagery of such loving response creates an even clearer and concrete picture of hope for tomorrow.
We may like to think of ourselves as being akin to the strong maternal figures in these poems. We may imagine ourselves faithfully sitting beside someone in grief, serving as a model of fortitude for younger generations, or moving toward suffering with loving action. But perhaps in God’s compassionate parental eyes we are each most similar to the struggling and vulnerable figures in these poems who experience losses too deep for words, look earnestly for spiritual mentors in older generations, and feel like children crying out in hunger for love as we lament difficult circumstances. We must continue to ask ourselves, in humility, how we can constructively channel our real passions of lament into sublime forms of writing and compassionate action. We must continue to move forward in hope.
Natasha Duquette is professor of English at Tyndale University College in Toronto, Ontario. She is author of Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Interpretation (2016) and has edited two essay collections: Sublimer Aspects: Interfaces between Literature, Aesthetics, and Theology (2007) and Jane Austen and the Arts (2013). For the Chawton House Library Series, she produced a scholarly edition of Helen Maria Williams’s Julia, A Novel Interspersed with Poetical Pieces (2009).