- Examining Earth
Richard Schiffman's first published poetry collection bristles with dazzling metaphors and effervescent language, but the author shows little concern for traditional sound effects, for rhythmic patterns or rhymes. A number of "poems" are written in prose, with no particular poetic element, although often clever and witty. Humor predominates in the middle section of the book, while puns enliven the entire collection. But Schiffman's poems usually contain a serious point; many are clearly philosophical or even theological in intent, and always concrete and precise. A kind of earthy, skeptical, ironic, and limited optimism about divinity, life, and an afterlife prevails. Thus the author expounds an unconventional theology, often playful and subversive, and calls upon Christian, and Jewish, as well as Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim voices. Many of the poems mention God and several refer to Jesus. But nature represents Schiffman's central concern. In fact, part of the dedication reads: "for this sane and sacred earth which sustains us all." Such an attitude explains the presence of several vigorous environmental poems.
For Schiffman, life may be obscure, uncertain, unpredictable, constantly in flux, often ridiculous, filled with difficulties, pain, suffering, loneliness, folly, and human self-damage, and yet it is not meaningless, absurd, purposeless, or futile. There exists a sort of cosmic order with a god, but it does not seem to be rigid or static. It includes paradox, mystery, and humor. Repeatedly, the poems mock or downplay rationality, technology, and modern western civilization, in favor of feeling, imagination, nature, and spontaneity. Imperfection and incompleteness are accepted and embraced.
Schiffman's god is very different from that of most traditional theologies. His existence (or "its") seems to be generally assumed throughout the book. But his nature is distinctive. For example, in the poem "My Theology in a Nutshell," the speaker is attending an exhibition of modern art. Above his head an artwork in the form of an electric fan is "careening in cockeyed arcs like a birdcage from hell." This inspires him to a series of speculations about the nature of God. Is he a kind of cosmic curator, or a theater director scripting the course of history, or a "wacked out artist" who "pulls stunts for the fun of it," or "the fan of the wall," or "the primal electricity that sets the fan to reeling." The narrator rejects all of these, but when he notices a child running after the flying fan and shrieking with delight, he decides that this is an apt image: God is the child. Again the poet's preference for the innocent, spontaneous, and joyful over the natural, scientific, or technological becomes apparent.
This God is not fragrant, celestial, and sensually appealing. In the playful theology of "Sermon to the Pooches," the speaker claims that "a gamy stench will be His sign." In "Heaven's Back Door," the speaker alludes to the custom of oriental carpet makers intentionally knotting a flaw into the carpet, thus eschewing perfection as a sign of respect for God, the perfect maker. For the poet this also symbolizes humanity's progress through error and indirection: "Arriving at heaven's back door / by our flawless indirection."
This world is not only imperfect, but it is also incomplete, and always beginning anew. In a lovely poem about Turner's unfinished paintings, entitled "Unfinished," the speaker affirms: "surely he knew that finishing would be a lie / in a world where the waxing waning moon / is unfinished, the river ends but does not finish."
In "A Bird Disagrees," the city is first portrayed as apparently very rational, rigid, and orderly. But the bird, with its loftier vision, rejects this interpretation and implies that the cosmic reality is something very different. This idea is further developed in "Sky Spun," which begins: "The world seems fixed like the grid of a city." The narrator describes the reality as one in which even the regulated city is voyaging like a...