Words to Rouse us (Isaiah) – Poems of American Poet Philip Metres

American poet Philip Metres (1970 – )

Solstice Prayer

In the name of the darkness,
and of the light, in the name
of the harness of winter’s ice.

In the name of the other,
and of the one, in the name
of the weather, and of the bone.

In the shame of the ache
of what I can’t tell,
in the name of the break

that will not heal. In the same
of the other, and of the one,
in the name of the anterior

and the darkness to come.
In the name of the middle,
in the snow of the gloom,

in the name of the straddle
between road and home.
In the reign of the cold,

in the name of the sorrow,
in the flame of the hark
beyond tomorrow’s morrow.

In the shame at the marrow,
in the grain of the sin
that breaks up the furrow

that I fall in. In the name
of my hands that touch
the forehead that stays shut,

then touch the sternum
that stays shut, then touch
the heart that stays shut, touch

the lungs that free the air
(what can’t be said—O ghost!—)
and then lay bare.

Philip Metres from Narrative – Poem of the Week, Dec. 15th, 2019

Solstice Prayer by Philip Metres became a triple gift when I discovered it about two weeks ago in the on-line literary journal, Narrative. The gift, first, of the construction of the poem: its rich word choice, hard and slant rhymes, cadences, musical inflections and incantatory power.

Listen to the way this poem’s repetitions cast a spell. A Solstice prayer/spell. And the way he builds up the tension in the poem by delaying the critical ask in the prayer until the twenty-ninth line! And how he introduces that verb touch three times before using it a fourth time to make his ask. The emphasis that provides to that fourth “touch”.

The second gift for me in this poem is its cry out in the darkness for some transcendent touch – unlike the touch of his hands that can’t open his forehead, his sternum, his heart – but some other touch to open him, his lungs; to help him (is he the ghost?) to speak what can’t be said and. perhaps, this way, to transform him. Change him. This cry that also calls out to me. What is it locked up in me that needs opening? Big questions from a big poem.

The third gift is the discovery of Philip Metres, poet, scholar, translator and essayist. A forty-nine year old American of Christian Lebanese descent, Metres has become a richly layered and empathetic poetic citizen of our time. A poet who pries into the world’s and his own tender places without being strident or dogmatic.

I began but did not finish this blog post as Solstice daylight faded outside my hotel window overlooking Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island a little more than a week ago. Here is a riff I wrote in an earlier version as the dark came in:

Day and light both thinning at the coming of the night. a day and a light I want that won’t leave me when dark deepens all around me. That light, the province of my soul, that light somehow neither here nor there. That light unafraid in this fading of daylight and would it be that I too could be unafraid. That today’s early curtain on the day would not call on my fear of the dark, too, inside me. The dark also the province of my soul. Dear God of light and dark be the light when dark overshadows me; be the dark when light overpowers me. Be the wholly opposites that sustain me.

When I wrote this on the Winter Solstice I wanted to answer Philip Metres poem/prayer with a prayer of my own. Even as I don’t fully understand my own answer. I wanted to honour Solstice Prayer and also its author.

Metres is the author of nine poetry collections with a tenth, Shrapnel Maps, coming in 2020 from Copper Canyon dealing with what Metres calls the hurt and tender places in the Israeli Palestinian predicament. In 2018 he wrote a book of essays that won a 2019 Arab American poetry award and he has translated a number of Russian and middle-eastern poets. He teaches English at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio where he is also the director of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights program.

I so resonate with this statement about poetry from Metres’s recent book of essays. How he sees poetry as no neutral bystander but an active participant in social and emotional change:

What I long to write and encounter is art that can help us make a quantum leap in our moral imagination. As a poet I long for Isaiah’s fire, for a “well-trained tongue, That I might know how to speak to the weary/ A word that will rouse them.” To make poems that will open not only our eyes but awaken us, pry open our hearts and souls, induce – μετάνοια (metanoia)— transforming how we spend our breath on this earth. Metanoia can be translated as a change of heart or of direction, with an implication of a turn to the light, to greater awareness.

Philip Metres from The Sound of Listening – Poetry as a Refuge and Resistance, University of Michigan Press, 2018

I think Solstice Prayer lives up to these requests by Metres of art and poetry. The urge in the poem for change, for transformation. And how he does it so artfully with his prayerful and anguished musical cadences in the poem and with his rhyming repetitions of: In the name ofand the echoing switch to In the same ofand the echo of both same and name in grain and flame and shame.

Then the face-whack impact of these lines for me:

In the shame of the ache
of what I can’t tell,
in the name of the break

that will not heal.

How Metres embodies a place of needful prayer in his poem. The isness of a narrator aware of his or her vulnerabilities and shortcomings. The shame of the ache / of what I can’t tell. How this reminds me of the many poems I see when I work with men and women in recovery from trauma, PTSD and addictions. How their poems can help them to tell the shame of the ache. How this poem seems to embody a Solstice moment (light leaving early) in the cry out of the narrator. The heart-wrenching need to open. To say what can’t be said.

For me this tightly constructed poem makes me ask myself if I am a ghost even to myself? What it is I need to tell myself to become fully flesh and blood again. The rhymes and cadences sing their way into my blood like a strong prayer can and I find I can answer. I can say it is my poems that can bring me back to the many selves of myself and rejoin them. My need to answer Metres’s poem with my own words is proof of that to me.

I wanted to close with another prayer poem of Metres’s. A prayer that is less personal than Solstice Prayer but again addresses, but with a wider focus (a baby and bomblets), the great yes and no of being human. These opposites: That we await a blessed hope, & that we will be struck/ With great fear….the soiled swaddle of god…the sweet scalp/ Of God


That we await a blessed hope, & that we will be struck
With great fear, like a baby taken into the night, that every boot,

Every improvised explosive, Talon & Hornet, Molotov
& rubber-coated bullet, every unexploded cluster bomblet,

Every Kevlar & suicide vest & unpiloted drone raining fire
On wedding parties will be burned as fuel in the dark season.

That we will learn the awful hunger of God, the nerve-fraying
Cry of God, the curdy vomit of God, the soiled swaddle of God,

The constant wakefulness of God, alongside the sweet scalp
Of God, the contented murmur of God, the limb-twitched dream-

Reaching of God. We’re dizzy in every departure, limb-lost.
We cannot sleep in the wake of God, & God will not sleep

The infant dream for long. We lift the blinds, look out into ink
For light. My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.

Philip Metres from Homing In from The Sound of Listening, ibid

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