Disappointing Psalms



Disappointed Psalms, Brian Clements

(54pp, $16.00, Meritage Press)



Brian Clements is best known as the editor of the prose poem magazine Sentence, and is a fine practicioner of the prose poem himself, so it's a bit of a shock to find him working in a kind of lyrical confessional polemic form.


The narrator of Disappointed Psalms is a contemporary Job, ranting against politicians, against wars, against God himself; he is also a sorrowful psalmsist, lamenting the fact he finds himself doing so. This, of course, is one of the contradictions of the book: how to shout at the God you no longer believe in. Another would be the perennial question of whether shouting out loud at politicians or readers actually changes anything.


These were my first thought as I read through the book, and they are thoughts that have remained. This is righteous anger, and it's well-shaped poetry (perhaps given the subject and context a little too worked on) but what or who is it for? I struggle with polemical poetry however much I agree with the content (moreso when I don't), and even though the coldness, the distance and control in these poems mean they've been considered and shaped, they've actually cut out a lot of the emotion and feeling that just might have carried them along.


The fourth section, a four-page poem entitled 'Without End', is the most succesful. The 'you' in the litany or list that shapes the poem is inclusive, so the reader feels as complicit, as judged, as got at, as anyone else. There's a jumble of personal, spiritual, political, domestic and national in the work, and a motorik rhythm that keeps us reading, interested and involved:


     You start the oven and there is no end.

     You start to dance with mammon and there is no end.

     You start to love you long time and there is no end.

     You start mowing and there is no end.

     You start to withdraw and there is no end.


And on and on. Hypnotic. Brilliant. But...


But, how do we read phrases like 'dance with mammon', do they mean anything? Even using phrases like this to reject their subject and argue against them aren't poets complicit in their meaningless? You don't dance with money or the love of it; you don't actually love money you simply become involved with greed and corruption, desire and deceit.


I have similar feelings about the three earlier sections, which are rooted in religious language, but also incorporate real or imagined political talk and news reportage. Does using the language of the Psalms to reject the God they are written for work? What does using religious intonation and vocabulary, tone and phrase to critique war and political irresponsibility achieve? The USA is, of course, still grounded in churchbound christianity far more than the UK, but apart from a fairly obvious alignment of the political right with born-again and shopping channel religion, is it possible to critique in the language of what you critique?


There may be a sense of satire, of decontexualisation and of satire by association, but for me it's all a bit shallow. And the loss of the narrator's faith, his rejection of a supreme being complicit in war, also seems distanced and fictional, because it comes in the guise of a distanced, almost philosophical discussion of that rejection. The root of this disbelief is clearly the war, but all too often that subject is clunkily inserted into a poem as though merely by word association the political and religious are synonymous:


     When I say "Lord" I mean


     The constant that peels the stars apart (I mean limbs)


     The force that drives bees into the hive (I mean bullets)


              but I mean nothing


     That constant.


This certainly shows a sense of confusion and implied despair, but in what way do limbs peel the stars apart? Theologians have been discussing war (the ethics and morals of), and the nature and constancy (or inconstancy) of God for centuries; poets too. Which probably doesn't help Clements in his personal struggle to think these things through, meld contradictions together, but perhaps does remind us that the most abstract, political, confessional or opinionated poems need to be rooted in the physical, in the detail around us, not in abstract thought:


     You start embracing uncertainty and there is no end.



            Rupert Loydell 2008