Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014), 82pp.
Scott Cairns (b. 1954), the Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair in English at the University of Missouri, has won numerous awards for his dozen books of poetry, memoir, essays, and translations. This collection of 53 poems continues to explore Cairns's Eastern Orthodox faith, including his experiences at Orthodox monasteries like those on the "Holy Mountain" of Athos. Of special interest, the book gathers into one place 14 of his "Idiot Psalms" that have heretofore appeared in journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Republic and Poetry.
In theological parlance, Cairns's poems exemplify the Orthodox apophatic tradition that begins by confessing our unknowing. They are a marvelous correction to the many ways that we trivialize the divine. Our Father in heaven is intimate, and sometimes even too close for comfort, but he is also infinite, and so beyond the fallen and finite knowledge of mere mortals. To what might we compare "The Vast and Inexplicable" when "full none of [our words] quite seem to satisfy?"
So, our speech about the divine is never exact, always provisional, insufficient for its task. Our hearts are dull, our presumptions are many, our minds are cluttered, our spiritual "impediments" almost "countless." Thus our "fraught perplexities accrue." And yet sometimes we have inklings of awareness that are no less real. The good God has "condescended, acquiesced / to grant what little I might bear." Even though we ricochet between futility and audacity, it is good and right to pray: "Being both far distant and most near, / grant in this obscurity a little light."