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Me and the Monotheists

I have noticed, over the past decade of writing and publishing poems, that Catholic journals, and Christian journals in general, have welcomed my poems warmly. This, in spite of the fact that I am Hindu. Part of the phenomenon must have to do with my frequent use of Biblical imagery; what you lose in relevance (as judged by the usual secular-academic, pop-fixated audiences), you gain in resonance: You are diving in deeper waters. I also tend to preserve meaning and form in my work, which must dovetail with the religious mind’s conviction about the universe itself being meaningful and deliberately “formed.” I do not rely as heavily as most poets of my generation on parataxis, which is the contemporary equivalent of chivalric narrative motifs in 19th century English poetry: A good idea, worked to death.

All that may explain why the journals publish my work (thank you, Image, First Things, America Magazine, Harvard Divinity Review, etc.); but the question remains why I am drawn, periodically, to compose on Biblical themes, or using Biblical imagery. (My first book, 0’, 0’ [Zero Degrees, Zero Degrees], published by Northwestern University Press back in 2009, had as its title poem a description of Christ crucified on a map of the world.) I do this quite without an agenda (I don’t proselytize for my own faith, much less for anyone else’s). I simply find myself stirred by an aesthetic resonance; not just by some larger, non-denominational meaning encoded in the imagery, but by the eye’s pleasure in symbols, the ear’s in stories; and by what strikes me as the memory of the language itself, a phrase which sounds wishy-washy, and which I ought to explain. If English were a biological organism, the bulk of its genetic code would derive from two obvious sources, one of which is the Bible; and this symbolic language must be grasped to the point of dexterous manipulation before English’s full po(e)tential can be realized. (Note: That last sentence there was probably wishful self-deception on my part; the success of an effect or reference are dependent on one’s audience, and a secularized audience, one that believes the Bible and Shakespeare old hat, kingpins of the musty old Western Canon good riddance, may well respond negatively, or not at all, to references that would delight a priest.)

I try on this blog to avoid commenting on my own literary endeavors, though naturally I think about them a great deal; but I should point out that I have a long history of writing inside the traditions of religions that condemn me and all my loved ones to hell—not least with the Kenyon Review, which serialized a lengthy Islamic prose epic, Azazil, over three print issues a while back. Here, too, I felt a draw on the basic level of imagery, not the dogma, which remains kind of scary to me (does my mom deserve eternal torment just because she’s not a Muslim? Yikes!).

This love of the imagery (and the imagery being an artistic stimulus) stems, I believe, from the startling irrepressibility of sacred representational art in religions that, ostensibly, honor the Old Testament injunction against graven images. Hinduism, which flourished independently of this scruple, developed a diverse iconography in which gesture, expression, dress, and a thousand details of representation communicate meaning, purely pictorially. The hand of Shiva Nataraja, raised, palm outward, is saying something; so is the foot he balances on, which dances upon a dwarf; so is the hand that gestures at his other, raised foot. Christ Enthroned, meanwhile, holds up three fingers to “say” the Trinity. Gesture is speech is teaching is gesture. The injunction against graven images has been violated fruitfully by Christianity because the technicality of Christ’s “fully human and fully divine” nature allowed for this, but even Muslim artists, particularly in converted Persia, began to represent Angels of God in living color when illuminating manuscripts. The iconoclastic “religions of the book” will hardly own up to this, but I have toured the churches of Europe, and I have seen the kinship for myself. The earliest Christ Pantocrator, at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, is portrayed with two expressions on the same face, split down the middle, to indicate a dual nature. From there it’s just one step to Harihara.