On Sept. 26, poet and essayist Scott Cairns gave an evening reading of his poetry before joining the Summoned Toward Wholeness  conference Sept. 27-28. Audio from the event is available now on iTunes U .
Cairns, a student of rabbinical writing and an adult convert to Orthodoxy, performed from these roots. His poems, stories, and jokes, full of midrash and meditation, recommended to listeners a slow, intentional love of the holy and of bodily life. His poems returned, over and over, to the body, and especially Christ’s body, as the place of human knowing.
At several points, Cairns read from his forthcoming book Idiot Psalms, complete with instructions to musicians: “a psalm of Isaac, with Jew’s Harp,” “a psalm of Isaac, with baying hounds,” “a psalm of Isaac, among the Philistines” (the last of these, Cairns said, was written in an English department faculty meeting).
The Isaac in these psalms is an alter ego, a holy fool, “a better version of myself,” he said. During the Q&A after his reading, the audience asked about the relationship between encounter with God, writing, and revision in his work. Local artist Phaedra Taylor asked Cairns whether writing is devotional for him, and whether revising changes that. “Revision makes writing poems more devotional for me," he responded. "At the beginning I’m just casting around for the words, but then when I’ve gotten close to what the poem wants to be, it becomes more and more devotional.” Celia Wolff, a Th.D. candidate at Duke, asked whether he had ever revised a line and found himself startled by the truth of the new words. “Yes,” he said, grinning. “I revise until that happens.”
To close, Cairns read a poem in which there had been such a moment of surprise. The poem, called “Loves” and spoken by Mary Magdalene, is “agnostic,” he said, explaining that it is opposed to gnosticism, which sees salvation as the spirit’s escape from bodiliness. Cairns marked the lines that had surprised him:
“All loves are bodily, require
that the lips part, and press their trace
of secrecy upon the one
A book signing with the author followed.
The reading was a part of a Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts renewed exploration in theology and literature. DITA will host two more visiting poets in Spring 2014, Rev. Malcolm Guite and Micheal O’Siadhail. For more Fall 2013 events see the DITA calendar .