Poet Lauren Russell explores heartbreak, despair, and the impossible as inspired by Psalm 22:20-21.
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20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
21 Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.
I will confess, first of all, that I am an Atheist. I don’t know why I say “confess.” I wear my Atheism like a flag. I am an Atheist and a secular humanist and a cultural Episcopalian. I grew up as a believer, but I haven’t believed since I was twelve or thirteen. Still, I sing church hymns while I am doing the dishes. When I am home to visit my parents at Christmas, I insist on going to midnight mass. I am nostalgic for the ritual. I am no longer a believer, but I continue to read the Bible as literature. I like the poetry of the King James’ Version, its lyricism, its idiosyncrasies. I like to read it aloud the way I like to read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Holy holy holy.
I will confess, secondly, that I am an experimentalist. This is not a belief system or even an aesthetic but a creative orientation, an intent on embracing the possibilities of the page. When an editor approaches me with an assignment, a writing prompt or constraint—whatever it is, I usually say yes. I want to see what I can make when I push myself in an unexpected direction. I want to see what a poem can be.
When I read Psalm 22, I am struck by the imagery. 22:14 reads, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.” This sense of the agonized, liquefied body disintegrating in doubt is familiar. Often in autumn I feel vulnerable, porous, like I have become a sieve. I had read this psalm many times before I noticed the detail of the speaker’s pierced hands and feet, the lots cast for his clothes, though the opening cry “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?” would have been a giveaway if it had come in the New Testament. What is Jesus doing in the Psalms? In any case, the excruciating torment of the body is not just figurative; here it is the agony of crucifixion. But the man tormented on the cross ultimately turns toward faith: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth: for though hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” Now I am struck by the choice of unicorns. Not rams, not gazelles—not an animal this speaker has actually encountered. What does it mean to be heard from the highest part of a mythical beast?
I am an experimentalist, and hence I embrace possibility. But do I ever embrace impossibility? Whenever I see mention of unicorns, I think of the Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters, how when I first saw them I thought the medieval Europeans’ rendering of a lion was actually stranger and more implausible than their conception of the hunted unicorn. Presumably none of those weavers had ever seen a lion. It is easier to pin a horn to a horse than to invent an animal out of whole cloth. We are all limited, first by our experience, and second by the contours of our imaginations. When I finally check the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, I find that my unicorns have been replaced with wild oxen.
In my poem, the brokenhearted speaker does not know if anyone can hear her. For me, there is no turn from agony to faith; there is only a dangling question, but there is also the urge to stretch the limits of what is possible through art. Maybe there is no one listening—but the tapestry, a work of skill and imagination, crafted by human hands working together in human time—the tapestry is alive.
Lauren Russell’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press later this year in 2017. A Cave Canem fellow, she was the 2014-2015 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the 2016 VIDA fellow to the Home School, and a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts fellow. Russell’s chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone came out from Brooklyn Arts Press in 2012. She is Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.