How Many Shapes Must a God Take?
By Phillip Memmer• Exodus 3:2–4
How many shapes must a god take
to attract your notice?
I tried them all–-
I came as sunlight through clouds, as a moon
full and unobstructed,
and various things afire.
I came as a man
bent with age, a woman
hardened by war. I came to you
as each sort of animal,
and as trees,
Poet Phil Memmer's poem "How Many Shapes Must a God Take?" is a response to Exodus 3:2-4 and the theme of “stranger”.
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2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
The offer to work with the Spark and Echo project came at an interesting, complicated time for me… I had not completed a poem in well over a year and a half, and while I was reasonably sure about what sort of poems I wanted to try to write next, I was completely baffled by how to go about it. In my last two books, I had written dozens of poems that used Biblical characters, or addressed a god figure through psalms, in order to explore my own spiritual concerns. At some point in early 2013, it occurred to me that I’d done enough talking to and about god: it was time for me to allow him/her to speak.
I identify as an agnostic, but I was raised in an evangelical Protestant family. Oddly enough, though, I spend far more time pondering the nature of the divine now than I ever did in my church-at-least-twice-a-week youth. The Creator is the ultimate “Stranger” when one does not hold a particular faith. This particular tension is what gave rise to “How Many Shapes Must a God Take?”
In my own spiritual history, god needed to vanish in order for me to seek him; she needed to be silent if I was to cup a hand to my ear. And while this poem was written more or less in the order it now appears on the page, and took its initial impulse from the “Burning Bush” story in Exodus (along with images from other religious and mythological traditions), I believe I somehow understood its conclusion before I reached it. Upon completing the poem, I felt “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew,” as Robert Frost once said. I also realized something I hadn’t previously understood about these new poems: that they are not simply poems in which “god speaks”… they are poems in which “god speaks to me.” And while that sounds dangerously like talking to oneself, I hope they move beyond that and speak to others as well.
Philip Memmer is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Storehouses of the Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams (Lost Horse Press, 2012). His previous collections include Lucifer: A Hagiography, winner of the 2008 Idaho Prize for Poetry from Lost Horse Press, and Threat of Pleasure (Word Press, 2008), winner of the 2008 Adirondack Literary Award for Poetry. His poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Poetry London, Southern Poetry Review, and Epoch, and in several anthologies. His work has also been featured in the Library of Congress’ Poetry 180 project, and in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry syndicated column. He lives in a rural village in upstate New York, and works as Executive Director of the Arts Branch of the YMCA of Greater Syracuse, where he founded the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center in 2001. He also serves as Associate Editor for Tiger Bark Press.