Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn. His books are often God-haunted, with doubt and faith giving breath to each other.
Flynn has said that he writes “about Jesus quite a lot, he’s appeared in nearly every book I’ve written, it seems…distilled down to his essence, I think he’s a beautiful figure…he is a scrim for each generation to project upon—he seems the perfect ambiguous image, which forces us to figure out what he means, over and over again.”
The complex identity and legacy of St. Augustine fits that same description, and in this poem, the final in Flynn’s excellent new book, we feel the narrator’s conversation with the past. “Even as I write each word I am farther from God,” he says—a powerful song of longing.
Saint Augustine preached humility &
the need to simply be on the ground.
Do you wish to rise? he asked. What
would he say of these words then, which,
after all, are meant to replace us? What
would he say of the way I go back, again
& again, to the burning house, the house
we’ve already escaped? These words—
so quick, the way they rise up, like sparks,
or smoke, a person could get lost in the sky
watching them, a person could lose track
of the important things. Spot quiz: What’s
the opposite of standing before a house
on fire, trying to understand the flames,
& knowing you will never understand?
I want to enter into that moment my mother
strikes her first match, but I’m still asleep
upstairs. In the dream I’m walking through
the marsh, because only there, surrounded
by water, am I safe. Are your hands
the water? Are these words the flame?
The reeds are taller than I am, the mud
slows everything down. In some ways
I cannot imagine seeing you again, but here
I am, kneeling as in prayer at your bedside,
counting our breaths. What would stop me
from taking your hand then & placing it on my
chest? O Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.
Even as I write each word I am farther from
God—sometimes I just can’t find it. If only I could
have the faith I hear coming from the radio,
the way it always knows I’m listening. One day
these years will be known as the space between
silence & enough. I still have trouble being alone
in either, which is why the radio is always on.
Do you wish to rise? Augustine asks. Begin
“Saint Augustine,” from I Will Destroy You. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Flynn. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.