Apogee Press ($18.95)
by John Bradley
The King James version of the Book of Psalms is a profound and intimidating text with layers of musicality, history, and spirituality. Most poets would avoid using this imposing work as a source of literary invention. Not so with Laura Walker’s psalmbook, which offers sixty-nine poems, all titled “psalms,” that draw inspiration from the Book of Psalms. Walker manages to preserve a sense of prayer while also reshaping the psalm into something new—a significant literary achievement.
One of the most notable attributes of Walker’s psalms is their fragmented state. They feel like translations from scraps of ancient papyri. Here is “psalm 142” in its entirety:
sound poured round our heads
The fragmentary nature of the poem is augmented by the use of the lower case, as well as the space between the lines, heightened by the oversize page (the book measures 7.5 x 9 inches). The spacing slows the reader, asks for the poem to be read again, and then asks us to meditate on the resonances.
Another innovation in psalmbook is Walker’s use of the second person. Unlike “Lord” or “God” in the King James Book of Psalms, “you” builds intimacy and uncertainty: “i see you there / or think i do” While this “you” usually seems to be used for a divine presence, at times there’s ambiguity: “i see you lying in the dark,” in “psalm 5,” could be speaking of a human presence. This ambiguity is unresolved in the adjacent lines: “tracing another cliff, another toppled island / on your bedroom wall :”.
Walker brings her psalms into modernity: “listen— / i will talk to you in the morning / by the washing machine.” Here the human need for spirituality is placed in the mundane world of laundry. Walker often blends Biblical and contemporary language. In “psalm 99” (there are poems in psalmbook with the same psalm number, indicating that some of the Biblical psalms inspired more than one poem) we hear both the King James-like language—“your name is a plucked thing in my mouth”—and contemporary language—“perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up.” Perhaps the “plucked thing” could be a mouth harp. As the psalms continue, however, we encounter something unfamiliar, something surreal:
perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up,
holding a flag or an apple, milk-creased creature
against your thigh
No matter what this “milk-creased creature” might be, Walker suggests that the language we use in our daily lives—“your pant leg rolled up” or “holding a flag”—is just as worthy as King James English in creating a prayer.
The cover of psalmbook, showing scraps of ink-inscribed ancient papyri, evokes salvaged pieces of a holy text. It also evokes, as does the text of this book, what survives of Sappho’s poetry. Perhaps this allusion is intentional, though the yearning in Sappho’s poetry is more concerned with earthly love. Yet its fragmentary nature, as in psalmbook, furthers that yearning.
Walker’s psalms will no doubt lead some readers back to the Book of Psalms, and that’s all to the good. But psalmbook stands on its own, steeped in absence and mystery, such as in “psalm 85,” which is all of three words and a punctuation mark: “i remember you :”.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023