, , , ,

Mark Jarman

History is not as porous to God as I thought and the gaps grow farther apart.

We can be like the child whose sister was raped and murdered who said at the funeral, “All the happy times I spent with you and will spend with you, I enjoyed and will enjoy.” Or like the woman who has one memory of her mother who died when she was eight. She is shouting at her in front of a closet.

In the meantime, put in the eyes of wish fulfillment, put out the hand with its five hungers, put on the skin of fiction.

When, with the help of micromachines, I am able to alter my shape at will, indeed to give myself a lifeshape without a death instinct, when I have conquered death in this body or another substitute body, while retaining enough of my soul to enjoy it, will I be worrying you or myself about what God wishes for his children?

This, as they say, lies years in the future. And if we are made or remade from remnants, thawed and brought back, it is years in the future. Burn your body and you will be safe, probably. Or maybe not. We are grave robbers–the museums, the traveling exhibits.

Eternal life may be coming back to this world perfected,
without your permission.

The creation of diamonds. A blip. The crocheting of DNA. A blip. Cross-stitch of the bilateral face. A blip. Condensation of tears from Paleozoic seas. A blip. Endurance of the strange, the doubly strange, the triply strange particle. A blip.

The time it takes to bring you past the kiss, past the coupling, past the nearly dispassionate concentration, so that time can stop. Blip. Blip. Blip. But the nine months, the terrible twos, the childhood, adolescence, adulthood, all the elongation of growing up and its estranging inwardness, the longed for reconciliation of parent and child before death, the wait for rebirth: these take forever.

What are you thinking now about eternal life? That it will be life eternally. And the bloody news at breakfast will continue. And the free-floating anxiety will continue. And the cosmic indifference will continue. But so will nakedness with my wife, black coffee in the morning, being read Dickens by my daughter before bedtime.

What are you thinking now about eternal life? That I will shed my guilt like sodden running clothes and hear the hymn of praise beginning in my throat as the multifoliate radiance anoints my face like a stiff hot shower and blurs every memory of earth.

What are you thinking now about eternal life? That I will wake up, stare at the twilit room, move over to mold my body to Amy’s, my left hand on her right breast, and go back to sleep for half an hour.

When the preacher stood before the class that day in June, 1968, and said that history was a river that God entered at will, he wished to console us for the assassinations. To comfort those who mourned. But no one seemed to understand. Perhaps no one was mourning.

Perhaps he should have said that history was a freeway that God entered at will. Perhaps he should have said that history was a TV show that God interrupted at will. Perhaps he should have said that history was six periods of stone boredom five consecutive days a week and an afterschool job and a weekend of chores that God cancelled at will.

He said history was a river. And the only river we knew was the Los Angeles, a concrete flood channel we had never seen in flood, running alongside the freeway like a giant gutter. And the assassinations that spring had occurred on people’s 16th birthdays.

Behind, beyond, before and after, existing now but separately, accessible in some special instances, like prayer, but present only as a listening, present only as a signal coming from a distance, present only as a silence.

We can live eternally like that. But for the time being, we will live as we are, for as long as we can.

These are the gifts of the Spirit. The belief that the body is enough. The belief that Love is a god. The belief that the next world is this world perfected.


Like T.S. Eliot in a 21st century feverdream: Mark Jarman’s “History” from his collection Epistles: Poems.

This is an absolute tour de force of thought and writing — I suggest reading it in silence. It does everything a poem should do: it covers intellectual and emotional ground, it exercises language and creates pictures; it communicates sharply, stirs up dormant or longsleeping ideas in your mind, and it doesn’t spoonfeed. It echos through repetition of phrases and questions, while leaving other ideas only partially unturned — waiting for you to either read over them (and explore them more and again) or merely move on. It’s what T.S. Eliot would be writing if he were alive today.

The picture is of Jarman outside his office at Vanderbilt University.