BILL SCALIA Reviews
A Messenger Comes by Rachel Tzvia Back
(Singing Horse Press, San Diego, CA, 2012)
A theologian once told me that we are “born into eternity.” In a certain abstract sense this may be true. But Rachel Tzvia Back’s book reminds us that humans are born into brokenness. Her choice of epigram (from Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish) reminds us that brokenness of spirit is a manifestation of a larger brokenness – but also that “the messenger” somehow summons us into the future, keeps us moving toward wholeness. Brokenness is the obvious theme of Back’s terrific book. But if the book were only about our broken condition, given Back’s remarkable skill, the book would be too painful to read. Brokenness evokes compassion, sympathy, and the desire to keep searching for meaning for our loss, and by extension our very lives. Back’s book is not theology, or philosophy, or critical theory. It is human to its very core. Her book illustrates the joys and sorrows of this one definitive, ineluctable fact about human formation: it never ends.
The book begins with the first act of brokenness, the creation of the universe, God speaking the world into existence, on
That first day when
gentle over the face
of turbulent waters
was breaking –
of course he knew
Creation could not occur without separation – separation of the world into language, into physical distinction, into time. However, Back takes us into God’s dilemma: the perfection of his being is broken in creation of the physical world. The poem continues:
of distinction –
self and still
in the infinite
abandonment of the
in a torn-light hail
of violets gold
as a newborn
out of the
The Godhead is broken and we are the pieces. But why is this separation necessary? To put it another way, if God in his omniscience knew that the first human would betray him, why did he allow that betrayal to happen? If man does not betray God, continues to exist in unity with God, how does God relate to his creation? What is there for God to do? The tension playing out in this poem, the second of the book, represents a large measure of her method: the brokenness is sad but inevitable, painful but necessary – and out of brokenness rises new land. In the hands of a less skilled, less feeling poet this theme could easily into a facile tilting at windmills (at best) or nihilistic self-pity (at worst). But Back’s view is far more sympathetic, and empathetic, to the larger “value” of suffering. In one poem she references Lamentations 3:12, writing, Bow bent / we are set / as mark for the arrow . . . . On the other hand, if God is directing his bow at our heart, at least he’s directing attention at us, he’s aware of us (a tiny slip of comfort Jonathan Edwards chooses to ignore in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God). A lesser poet would mourn the losses (father, sister, and in a way a loss of innocence) Back experiences and considers. God setting his bow against our heart might seem, in that case, symptomatic of the objective correlative. But in another poem Back refers again to Lamentations, specifically to a prayer beginning Modeh ani – “I give thanks” – in which the poet thanks God in his great kindness who “restores our souls to us each new morning” (this from Back’s notes). This book is no simple lamentation for loss; it is more an anthropology of the meaning of loss and the hope of replenishment. In an early poem, a couple is debating the origin of creation, the origin of human separation from God; the two hold differing views, but their difference is reconciled in the best possible way after the woman turns away,
she had had
until he reached across
the slender space
between them and
The brokenness of creation is manifested in language as well as time, and in the section of the book titled “In a Language of Sand (A Love Suite)” Back connects the two:
With the first word she wrote
began to exist . . .
With her first written word you became
It was love in the language of sand . . .
Unsated and discontent –
a language with no present tense.
I was and would be
Throughout the book Back treats the distinction between Word and word, between divine Word (the language of God at creation here, not the embodiment of Christ), words as pieces of creation, the “unlettered becoming lettered.” Emily Dickinson also works in this area; in poem 305: “The difference between Despair / And Fear – is like the One / Between the instant of a Wreck - / and when the Wreck has been -”, for example. Back references Dickinson (though not this specific poem), and through the book I could feel echoes of Dickinson’s anxiety of time, especially the absence of time in the experience of pain (or loss) – that is, the terrible awareness of present-ness. Time, for Back, is another brokenness; time is not of a piece; it does not ‘flow,’ but is relative to experience of its passing, which is subjective. A language with no present tense is the eternal present (admittedly a contradiction of terms), a time without time; when “time” is present, the “unlettered” becomes “lettered.” But time is all we have. The twofold direction of Back’s poem is memory and possibility; the conjunction she chooses in the last line of the poem quoted above indicates her desire to live in both, or perhaps the inter-determinate nature of both: we live in our awareness of the past, but we keep moving into the future.
Or, we might think of Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical. In Kierkegaard’s formulation, the ethical (the universal) is human existence, and its telos is embodied in our ethical responsibility to each other, authored by God himself. But what does Abraham do when God asks him to commit a wholly unethical act (murder his only son)? There is no answer in the ethical for this, so Kierkegaard invents a new category for Abraham’s condition (the ethical is suspended in order that Abraham can obey God by his willingness to kill Isaac; his willingness to obey God reinserts Abraham into the ethical, and God does not allow the murder). This suspension is, in a sense, an eternal present; in this condition, time cannot exist for Abraham because time exists wholly in the universal (we determine our future based on our experience of the past), and the “present” is at best always fleeting; the best we have is not present, but participle; not be, but becoming. A language with no present tense is the reinsertion into time; note Back’s careful choice of verbs in the final line (what use has God for verbs? Verbs are both language and time, connected, in our experience of this inevitable, necessary brokenness). Only love, the variety of love Back writes about here, suspends the brokenness of time; it is the kiss “across the slender space” that separates us.
In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the Underworld to seek help in finding his way to the promised land for the ‘new race of Trojans’ (Rome), and in doing so meets many of the souls locked in permanent torture. But, in the most beautiful passage in the poem, Aeneas also gets to visit those who have lived lives of piety and meets the shade of his father, Anchises, who shows him all the souls in paradise waiting to be born. In this sense, there is an eternity that all souls participate in; being born into history, into the tenseness of time, is a separation from that wholeness. Back’s book begins at the brokenness of the creation of the universe, what this creation entails: the necessity of language and time, but more significantly loss, and love. God’s heart may be broken, but we are the pieces of his broken heart; and, just as a spoken word seeks a listener, broken hearts seek reconnection.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.