I used to collect poems that are prayers, so Sharon Cumberland’s “Prayer” immediately leapt out at me from the pages if Image. Leapt out—but then instantly grabbed me uncomfortably in the opening line: “Ignore, O Mystery, this thing You made.” The speaker’s plea to God is not for connection but for separation. Why? Because, as the next lines explain, the speaker feels merely a “thing”—so utterly different from God that she fears even “to conjure You with prayer.” So this will be a prayer about the terrors of praying. Further along, with the line “Hold me, O Mystery,” we think that the relation has changed, that the speaker now longs for connection with God—until the following line (“in your sidelong view”) brutally cuts off any connection in that startling “sidelong view.” The plea to “hold me,” it turns out, is a plea not for physical warmth but for a chilling separation. The poem closes by returning to its opening prayer, but with a difference: the line-breaks now put the speaker as “thing” and a trembling “me” at lines’ ends—until the final, still distant, terrifying “You.”
It trembles me to think on You,
genderless, less than fluttering tissue,
not like me or any thing I know.
I fear to conjure You with prayer,
lest your mighty zero zero in on me—
What might You do?
Extract a whirlwind from my mind?
Impregnate my old age?
Burden me with prophecy
then strike me blind?
Hold me, O Mystery,
in your sidelong view.
Insofar as You are good,
be good to me too; or leave me
with the pebbles of consolation:
other people, things to do.
Ignore, O Mystery, this thing
You made. It trembles me
to ponder You.
Sharon Cumberland has published two chapbooks as well as poems in Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Indiana Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Midwest Quarterly, Verse, and many others. She won the 2007 Zola Prize for Poetry, awarded by the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association, Kalliope Journal’s Sue Saniel Elkind Award for poetry, and first prize in the Writer’s Haven Press Bright Side poetry competition. She teaches English and poetry at Seattle University.
Above image by Zaytsev Artem, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.