When the painter Mark Rothko stood in the vestibule of the Laurentian Library in Florence in July of 1959, he had already completed nearly half of the paintings that had been commissioned for a new restaurant (The Four Seasons) opening on the first floor of the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko had received the commission in 1958, and though he would eventually return the money and refuse to let his color field paintings be hung in a restaurant where only the richest of the rich could afford to dine, the final series of more than 40 canvases known as the Seagram Murals are a monumental achievement of color, form, and abstraction. Their effect on the viewer who walks among them at the Tate Gallery in London or the National Gallery in Washington where they now hang is to throw into doubt the perception of space and dimension. They loom like huge, dark windows, flat surfaces suggestive of liminal spaces, begging the viewer to try, like Alice through the looking glass, to step in. As formal compositions they forsake depiction for the intimation of passage, pulling the human into the unknown. But of course, no world lies beyond the canvas. Passage, in any physical sense, is impossible. The point is the tension the viewer feels between the dream of that passage and the awareness that the way is physically blocked.
This is exactly the sensation that Rothko had walking into the library of San Lorenzo one summer day in 1959. The space, designed by Michelangelo, invokes a strange vertigo. On the one hand, there is scale and height: a two-story room with classical ornamentation and double columns throughout. The eye goes up. But then there is the foreboding staircase that seems to flow into the room like lava, and the hemmed-in, unwelcoming parquet floor. The eye looks for a way out. Most striking for Rothko, though, were the false windows that line the walls of the lobby. The casings, pediments, and sills are visually elegant but frame no view and let in no light. The effect is claustrophobic. On the other side of these walls are the reading rooms of the Laurentian Library, a collection of ecclesiastical and philosophical manuscripts that constituted the personal library of the Medici. The reading rooms are both the symbol and the realization of Renaissance learning, the promise of understanding and wisdom. But from the vestibule, one cannot see in. One can only see that the way is blocked, the windows that point to divine knowledge are false, leaving the visitor no choice but to dwell in unknowing, to turn inward, to reflect on the self before proceeding to the library above. The passage up and out is actually a passage in. When he returned to New York a few weeks later, Rothko envisioned the art works he had to create: color poems that promised, as windows do, something else, something beyond, but also, in foreclosing the possibility of accessing that beyond, pointed us as viewers back into our own longing and unknowing.
The metaphor of the false window—the artwork that intimates a mysterious beyond at the same time that it shows us just how inaccessible that mystery is—is a useful template with which to approach the poetry of prayer. By poetry of prayer I do not mean actual prayers, or at least I do not here consider them as prayers in a strictly theological or devotional sense. I mean poems that adopt the rhetorical pose of prayer, poems in which a human I addresses a divine Thou and in doing so mold themselves on the forms of speech we recognize as giving voice to our deepest longing for communication with the sacred other. The room that joins literature and liturgy is not unknown to contemporary poetics, but the poems that move in that room most successfully tend to encounter the forms and act of prayer in ways that gesture toward humanity and introspection rather than doctrine or even piety. For those of us interested in compositional methods, this presents an interesting question: what is accomplished poetically when a writer chooses the conventions of prayer as a structure for the poem? Or, to return to Rothko in the Laurentian Library, why is the wall decorated with false windows? What does it mean for the artistic work to suggest a passage it cannot deliver?
One may as well begin to answer this question with a contemporary of Rothko’s, John Berryman, who died just two years after the painter, also of suicide, and who put pressures of a similar magnitude on poetic forms as Rothko did on color and canvas. While undergoing inpatient treatment in a detox facility in 1970, Berryman wrote a series of devotional prayers, collectively known as “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” that became the last section Love & Fame. The book is a departure for Berryman near the end of his life, but these poems in particular stand out for their direct engagement with the Christian God. As a sequence they are reminiscent of Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Edward Taylor’s Meditations, but they express a particularly American kind of confessionalism in which the poet’s sexual appetites, alcoholism, and self-pity merge in an eloquent awe for the presence that is greater than the self. Or, as Berryman puts it, the “Sole watchman of the flying stars.”
The ninth address in this sequence begins with typical Berryman bravado: “Surprise me on some ordinary day / with a blessing gratuitous.” The reader already knows, of course, that this is a direct address to God, but this line immediately upends the expectation of what prayer is. How many of our own prayers have begun with the words “surprise me?” I suspect Berryman knew his readers would hear in that first line a corollary to his famous “Dream Song:” “Life, friends, is boring.” The spiritual crisis of our age is boredom, and it’s true, Berryman seems to admit here, that he has no inner resources to get out from under that weight. Outer resources must be called upon.
Berryman blends into his idiosyncratic syntax some arch-poetic elements—the basically iambic meter of the first, third, and fourth lines; the quatrains; the consonance of “ordinary day” and surprise/some/blessing/gratuitous; the assonance of “count” and “bounty” that almost verges into rhyme. These elements invoke in strong and sophisticated ways the tropes of devotional verse of an earlier age—I hear Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God”—but the sensibility behind the opening petition is startlingly, and I think ironically, childish: I’ve been good. I’ve been better than everyone expected me to be. If we can count on your bounty, then you owe me a surprise. Beneath this runs the complaint of a man exhausting his store of deferrals: the boredom is interminable.
The second stanza challenges the immature theology of the first by invoking “that Second-century fellow,” probably a reference to Origen of Alexandria who maintained that God is an absolute other—everything that exists, God is not, and therefore we cannot even conceive of God. Who, exactly, is the “you” then? The poet seems to admit that this address is a device since God can’t, in the theology of the poem, be addressed as a Thou. An indicator of Berryman’s genius is that we hear in the third line of that stanza something that is not exactly there: is it “I by that second-century fellow” or “I don’t buy that for a second”? The offhanded “uh-huh” becomes both the unthinking assent to doctrine and a sarcastic expression of doubt.
The end of this poem mystifies, but some possible readings bear out. On the one hand this ambivalent prayer seems to land on a consolation: the widow at the curb is somehow sustained by God like an empire past its prime. Though in the stanza above God is a distant, abstracted impersonator of physical phenomena, Berryman circles back to a personal, intercessory divinity. But why is the widow at the curb instead of on the curb? The more usual “on” would indicate homelessness or destitution, turning her into a pathetic icon, but “at” suggests a place she has come to, a pause before passage. Passage into what? She is in this moment like Schrödinger’s cat: two things at the same time, the proverbial old woman crossing the street and an incarnation of despair preparing to step into traffic. And what would it mean for God to sustain her? To help her across, to keep her where she is, to give her the courage to step into the onrushing cars? His own suicide just a year away, Berryman seems here to toy with faith in a God who doesn’t prevent ruin but who gives the strength to encounter it. Perhaps Berryman identifies with and envies the widow, wanting for himself a little of whatever it is that pushes her to do or not do whatever it is that she is going to do or not do. He is either going to or not going to jump from Minneapolis’ Washington Avenue Bridge onto the west bank of the Mississippi. He does not foreknow. But yet another avenue of interpretation opens up amid Berryman’s loose play with grammar, diction, and punctuation. After all, how is it exactly that God “sustains” “imperial desuetudes” unless sustain here means to endure and bear the weight of? God’s continuity transcends the grief and disuse we all come to, our empires and our own pedestrian lives. Here a different kind of hope for Berryman: God forgets neither the long-forgotten empire nor the lonely widow. Maybe there’s room in there for him, for all of us, though even then the inevitable price of this welcome is to be abandoned by—or in Berryman’s case, to abandon—the world.