Poetry That Speaks to Our Times: Nicholas Samaras’ New Book, American Psalm, World Psalm

We move through our days, reaching toward whatever it is we have set our minds and hearts on, doing our work, making our plans, joining in with the life of family and friends. In between the routines and the larger movements in our life’s story, however, lie the quiet moments where the deep wonderings and emotions of being whisper to us. These are what Nicholas Samaras’s writing does in his new book of poems, American Psalm, World Psalm. They lay open the yearning we experience at the deepest level of our mind and being. When reading Samaras’s poems, the reader senses the open heart resting beneath them, the vulnerable place from which the words rise and speak. The poems in this volume reach into the fabric of who we are as modern people and wrestle with difficult questions, addressing them in a way that is both personal and powerful.

One of the things that especially spoke to me while reading American Psalm, World Psalm, is the space on the page and inside the poems. There is breath in the way Samaras uses the white space on the page. The “Psalm of the Quietest Wailing,” for example, is a sectioned poem where the first section contains only one line, “It is attention that makes worship.” The rest of the page is empty. I read the line, and I notice it on the page as if it were a stone lying in a Japanese garden surrounded by the wide space of raked sand. The next page reveals the poem’s second section where the poem’s speaker describes listening to “the rubble of history,” how he stands with it, his breath bearing witness to what its stones declare. Here, as throughout the volume, I sensed the humility, born from standing in this place of listening openness out of which the poet speaks. The poem’s third section contains two lines. Then, once again, the remainder of the page is open, leaving space for the reader to take in what is being said, space to reflect on the words. “What is virtue,” the poem’s fourth section asks, “but whispering, Who am I?” This is the very question the book’s poems bring me back to repeatedly. The poems call me out of a noisy world where a myriad of things crowd and clamber for attention, and they bring me into a garden where words are given back space to breathe in, where they regain a sense of themselves because of the honesty they are spoken in. Over and over while reading the poems I found myself leaning into the words on the page, listening deeply, drinking in the lines from a place of thirst hidden inside me the poems had found a way to name. “The writing from my hands is the quietist wailing,” writes Samaras, “the witness of breath against a listening wall.” With spare words and deep beauty, Samaras captures the essence of the hard places we live in.

The psalms that Samaras writes in American Psalm, World Psalm, like the Biblical psalms, are a deep cry of the heart trying to make sense of how to live in this world. From the topic of global warming, to a call for readers to consider what is actually enough, versus constantly concentrating on what our consumer driven world suggests we need, the poems in the book are not about religion in the cultural sense. These poems move into a deeper place. “Believing in God after the Holocaust is political,” writes Samaras in “The Political Psalm,” just as “Writing a sonnet after Dachau is political.” How do we find that place where we can move beyond words and into a relationship with the Divine that is beyond the stale words and religious routines that culture and time have deadened and beaten the spirit out of? Through a space of stillness, suggest the poems in American Psalm, World Psalm, where we open ourselves in waiting.

We live in a monetized world where transactions are shadowed by the awareness of how even every day actions, such as the subjects we speak of in an e-mail are pieces of data collected and used as reference points to sell us something. “I grieve to live in a country where a verdict/of “not guilty” doesn’t equal “innocent,” writes Samaras in “Psalm for Public Grieving.” The poems in American Psalm, World Psalm describe a variety of desert places we are living in, encouraging us to look at them closely. One of Samaras’ poems invites the reader to not take breath for granted. Another tells how it is in our emptiness and brokenness that we may find what it is to be blessed. Samaras describes in “Psalm for the Soul in Depression,”

…I don’t want
a preacher in expensive suits. There is
no salvation by slogans. There are no sound-bites
to bring us home. We don’t work
with the aim for conversion. We only
witness…

The weight of the light shining on the desert places in us grows through the book, bringing the reader into an awareness of her own unsaid longings. “Speak to me/ about the presence of absence” writes Samaras in “Sacred Air.” “Not everything created/ can be seen.” Samaras’s poems remind us that life is much more than this narrow space in our minds we’ve confined ourselves to. The poems in American Psalm, World Psalm speak to all who long to live in a world that still contains wonder. A universe filled with mystery surrounds us still, and we are invited to partake in it. As Samaras says in “The Psalm of Give and Let”

Let our mortal bodies be so crowded
by the unseen seen
that we go home changed forever,
finally attendant in prayer.

The poems in Samaras’ American Psalm, World Psalm demonstrate the power with which poetry can speak to us, and to our current lives and culture. Music moves us, and the music of Samaras’ psalms call us out of ourselves, out of our habits and routines into a different way of being in relationship to the world. “Only when you find yourself lost/will you confront what you value,” says Samaras in “God of the Desert.” Through finely etched words, like shadows drawn by bare branches across the sand, the words in these poems scratch on our souls. I feel deeply grateful for the gift of these poems to my life and to the world of poetry. These are poems to be lost and found in.

Nicholas Samaras’ book is available at Ashland Poetry Press, as well as on Amazon.

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