Robert Pinsky’s Theological Universe

Poetry and The New York Times Book Review, whose appraisals of The Want Bone appealed to Robert Pinsky’s publisher so much that excerpts of them now reside on the book’s back cover, say that “Pinsky seems most at home in the Hindu tradition” and “The Want Bone is about the conflicting and overlapping metaphysics of Judaism and Christianity,” respectively.  The tension between these two generalizations makes a good starting point for understanding the collection’s theology.  Pinsky may identify strongly with his family’s Jewish tradition, as his Talmud, Sandy Koufax, and circumcision references belie, but his writing is altogether too humanist to fit into traditional Western theology.  Jehovah and the saints are a group of moral exemplars, and believers are always striving to measure up to their standards.  To become like Jesus and Mary, says the catechism, is to become more human than one was before.  Pinsky’s theology places man, not God, at the center, “numberless faces all spokes from one trunk[1].”  Divinity either acts like us or needs us.  What is most holy is not the gods but our language: the heart, hammer of love, is hammered itself by the hammer of words[2]The Want Bone’s afterlife of choice is reincarnation, perhaps because the human heart is too vigorous to die but too restless to be satisfied with heaven.

One cannot accuse Pinsky of having too local a perspective.  His work references not only Christian, Hindu, Greek, and Norse[3] gods but also local Middle Eastern gods Baal and Gog as well as the Zodiac[4].  The ocean is called an immense blue Pagan, recalling the desiccated, immobile giant in “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”  Pinsky even mentions Priapus, the Greek god cursed with a giant, constantly erect but impotent penis, in the same breath as Jehovah[5].  Surely he does not believe in all these gods; he is more like an anthropologist studying them to understand us.  As a whole, the gods are bland, thirsty, and languorous[6].  As individuals, they yearn and want as much as their subjects.  Pinsky refutes the Buddha with a love song from Lee Andrews, a Philadelphia soul singer and a messenger angel from God, and that is the last he has to say about asceticism.

Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully Man according to the Council of Nicea, is the perfect vessel of Pinsky’s theology.  “From the Childhood of Jesus” and “Jesus and Isolt” both highlight the contradiction between Christ’s divine responsibilities and his human desires.  In the former poem, the Savior of Men is an impetuous child who uses supernatural powers at a whim.  In the latter, he is an impetuous adult who receives permission for his actions from his mild and patient mother.  He considers his divinity a leash and paradoxically wishes for the “unquenchable” days of living and dying.  The sexual activity of the angels frustrates him, perhaps because he is jealous.  The death cult of chivalry, rather than infuriating him as it offends our modern sensibilities, instead attracts him:

The Jewish soul of Jesus, pragmatic, ethical, logical, found in the passionate and self-defeating codes of romantic love and knightly combat some of what he lacked in the jeweled pavilions of Heaven…The boyish code of knighthood fascinated the Savior, with its heroes who hacked at one another all afternoon, according to rules immutable as the musical scales, making the ground slippery with blood, and then kissed and swore promises and escorted one another to chapels to be confessed by suffragans.

Whereas Jesus sates his desire by lashing out, Shiva and Parvati turn inward: barely listening to their supplicants, instead “turning to embrace beyond reason.”  They are described as singular and then plural in the third stanza, “penetrated and also penetrated” to represent that they no longer even differentiated between male and female..

With gods like these, what is truly sacred?  Pinsky elects our words, the poetry and song that proceed from prophets and auto mechanics and even shark bones.  The gods satiate themselves with us: in the middle of the night, they take long train rides to factories where they can drink our literature and our language, “steeped, brewed, and spent” by individuals, enriched by eons of war, invasion, and communication between polylingual tribes.  After we perish, our myriad songs will disappear, the gods will resuscitate our books, turn them into plumes of smoke, and blow them over the sea, inspiring all the creatures on earth to sing “to keep from bursting” and hum “oblation to what our mouths once made[7].”

Religious ritual is accomplished through words: a construction worker listening to the Talmud, a congregation repeating tautological prayers, a cantor singing the Kol Nidre[8].  Two of the pieces about the Jewish tradition provide the most poignant representations of the sanctity of words: “Memoir” and “Pilgrimage.”  “Memoir” is about phylacteries, boxes containing handwritten verses of the Torah which many Jews tie around their hands, arms, and heads during prayer in order to remember their deliverance from Egypt and keep the words of God inside their hearts and souls.  Phylacteries also set the Jews apart: “It was like saying: I am this, and not that.”  The grand finale of “Pilgrimage” is the reading of the indecipherable scroll of the Ark of the Covenant with its infinite regress of secret names.  Even if the readers do not understand the words, they have power.  The adherents “read themselves into the unchangeable Book,” imagining their own place in God’s words and hence his universe[9].  Pinsky’s Christ also emphasizes words: the Child Jesus is chided for “offending the Word” and establishes his authority by claiming that his name is written on the jewel of the throne in the center of creation.  The ciclogriff Christ tells gossip stories to Isolt to entertain her, while Tristan sings her epic poetry.  The tongue, whose percussion makes speech possible, is connected to other powerful implements in “The Ghost Hammer.”

This thread is not a fabrication of Pinsky’s, for words as words are indeed crucial to Judaism and Christianity.  The most valuable possession inside the priceless Ark of the Covenant was the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  The name of the God of the Israelites, Jehovah, was considered too sacred to be uttered.  The prophets spoke the word of God to the people, and Pinsky writes of two prophets of the Babylonian Exile, Daniel and Ezekiel, in his collection.  The Bible calls Jesus himself “The Word[10],” deifying communication.

There are, however, points in which Pinsky’s theology disagrees with the Judeo-Christian canon.  Given his erudition, perhaps these discrepancies are intentional and are meant as criticism against the prevailing view or poetic license taken to strengthen the theme.  The Ark of the Covenant, so prominently featured in “Pilgrimage,” did not contain a wizened scroll with secret names scorched on its leather but rather stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  The dancers could not lovingly brush their fingers against the Ark because God killed anyone who touched it.  “The Uncreation” tells of the gods coming back to earth after a flood destroys all of mankind, but God already promised never to flood the world again.  The plot of “From the Childhood of Jesus” comes not from the Bible but from one of the Gnostic Gospels (and the clay pigeons are also mentioned in the Koran).  The angels touch and fondle each other “gently and mutually, just as St. Augustine says they do.” Augustine writes of angels in City of God but not of their sexual intercourse – he is even uncomfortable about the human version – so perhaps Pinsky means John Milton, whose Raphael says angels’ coupling is “easier than air with air[11].”  “Our Lord Jesus Christ in the shape of a ciclogriff” is the constant companion of Tristram and Isolt, and Pinsky acts like we all know what a ciclogriff is, but the word returns exactly four results on Google, all of them related to this piece, and a cursory search of Tristram and Isolt did not uncover evidence of the bird.  Jesus is “the most unfortunate of all his Father’s creations,” but according to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus is not a creation of the Father but rather an equal part of the Trinity who has existed as long as the Father has.  Finally, many Christians would consider Jesus’s actions in his two poems, from making the child wither to withholding knowledge of salvation from Tristan and Isolt until the last moment, simply incompatible with his divine nature.  No matter.  Such discrepancies weaken Pinsky’s academic argument but do not confound his message.

On the last page of his collection, the author pivots from a description of Pleasure Bay, heretofore a nice vacation spot with some tragic history, to a myth of what happens to the soul after the body dies: after a few days of watching those it loved before, it follows singing across the river and into the dark, where it encounters a group of sleeping bodies.  The soul has consensual relations with a body, and at the climax, it flies into that body and begins the process of life again.  It never returns to Pleasure Bay the same way twice, as the catbird there never sings the same phrase twice, and as one can never step in the same river twice because reality is always in flux (Heraclitus).  Another well-known work finished this way: The Republic.  According to Er, a virtuous soldier returned from death to prophesy to his fellow man, souls first spend hundreds of years in hidden chambers of the universe being rewarded for their goodness or punished for their evil, then process from a meadow meeting-place to the spheres, where they can choose one of countless potential lives to lead next.  After the Fates tie them to their new selves, the souls cross through the Plain of Forgetfulness to the River of Unmindfulness, where they drink to forget their old lives.  In the night, a thunderstorm and an earthquake impel these sleeping souls to new birth.  So Pinsky’s and Plato’s accounts both feature souls walking a literal path to reincarnation, but whereas free choice is the catalyst in Plato’s afterlife, desire moves Pinsky’s, and tellingly, sexual hunger drives the soul even after the body is gone[12].  Christ is bored in heaven, but the soul is too resilient for death.

Dante wrote that the heart which is attuned to God is turned like a wheel by the Creator.  Pinsky’s theology spins the will in a different direction.  Man is wrenched along the wheel of fortune, his emotions dropping into the Zodiac of intentions with all the rest.  Shiva and Parvati rotate into each other, not outward to embrace everyone.  Man’s worship is his song into the wheel: the mechanic singing to the tire and the driver singing to the steering wheel are each faces on the same spoke.  The heart, producing its own energy as if it were a waterwheel, turns and turns.


[1] “Shiva and Parvati Hiding in the Rain”

[2] “The Ghost Hammer”

[3] “Window”

[4] “Immortal Longings”

[5] Conspicuously absent from this display are Allah and Mohammed, perhaps because they did not have literary interest but perhaps because popular reception of The Satanic Verses, published just two years before, made magical realism about Islam a risky proposition.

[6] “The Uncreation” and “The Refinery”

[7] “The Refinery” and “The Uncreation,” respectively

[8] “Lament for the Makers” and “The Uncreation,” respectively

[9] “The Bible Code” played to the same desire.

[10] “Logos” in the Greek version.  Logos generally means “speech,” but it could also signify “action.”  The current Keeper of the Keys, Benedict XVI, called logos “creative reason.”

[11] Paradise Lost VIII:626

[12] It’s like the old joke that men still have sexual desire until ten minutes after they’re dead.

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