In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International convention of Atheists. 1929
By Jeanne Murray Walker
Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside and question the metal sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say
all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t
there that makes the notion flare like
a forest fire until I have to spend the afternoon
spraying it with the hose to put it out. Even
on an ordinary day when a friend calls,
tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I whisper, God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,
wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which--though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.
Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.
You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up
and a voice you love whispers hello.
Poet’s Commentary: This is a doubter’s poem. We overhear the thoughts of someone who wants to put at rest, for once and for all, the question of whether there is a God and, if there is, what on earth he’s like. The speaker in this poem, like Luther, wrestles with how to reach God, how to define him truly, how to hold on to him in words. To do that involves ridding herself of conventional, easy definitions of God. Ready-made, simple notions of the deity are like a phone she didn’t order, a phone she eventually smashes with a hammer. And then, as Luther did, she discovers that God survives the smashing. She learns that she is not the one who is holding and defining God. He is holding her. When she picks up the demolished phone, she hears His voice. The wonder is not that God speaks to her after she has destroyed all her preconceived notions of Him, but that He speaks to her with such love.
Jeanne Murray Walker is a poet, essayist, and playwright. She has published eight volumes of poetry, including Helping the Morning, A Deed to the Light, and New Tracks, Night Falling. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Century, The American Poetry Review, Image, and Best American Poetry. Her scripts have been performed in theaters across the United States and in London, and she has been awarded numerous fellowships and honors. The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer's details her decade caring for her mother. She is Professor of English at The University of Delaware, where she heads the Creative Writing Concentration, and she also teaches in the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts Program. She served for 20 years as Poetry Editor of Christianity and Literature and now serves on the Editorial Board of Image and Shenandoah magazines.
*This poem first appeared in Poetry magazine; used by permission.