Sunday, January 6, 2013

In mem. Robert Siegel

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Pool by the Sheep Gate

He’d been lying there most of his life.
When the angel troubled the water, he couldn’t move
fast enough to be first.  He had no wife
or brother to carry him: no one that love,

a sense of justice, or pity moved to the task.
So when the wonderworker came, he was resigned
again to seeing someone else cured. He didn’t ask,
even when the healer looked him in the eye

and inquired if he wished to be healed–
not a strange question, considering his vocation
of living in hope denied: he was a professional
at it, with status and a certain reputation.

Take up your bed.... He obeyed before he thought,
luckily, of all he’d have to learn to live without.

This poem is based on a passage from the gospel of John, in which Jesus heals a lame man who has never been able to reach the healing pool by the sheep gate, precisely because he is crippled. It offers an interesting perspective: it suggests, yes, the power of Christ as seen by a committed Christian; but it also makes a reader ponder the fact that human beings can get attached to their own misfortunes, that a depressed state of mind can, for some, become a luxury– which the man healed here will have to do without.

The poem seems excellent to me. It was written by my friend of over forty years, Robert Siegel. Cancer claimed Bob’s life last week, and I will miss him, as poetry will. Bob had faced his disease with valor and with faith.

Thinking on his passing led me also to think, scarcely for the first time, about poetic reputation, about which I have never much been concerned. But renown was even less crucial to Bob Siegel, in part because of the faith I just mentioned. Worldly fame had to be relatively inconsequential to him.

Bob had a distinguished career: I knew him first at Dartmouth, from which, as poets, we were both axed, creative work not passing for real publication back in those days. (It’s a very different matter there now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my friend, the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis.) He went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, where he established an excellent MFA program. He published nine books of poems, gathered numerous awards and fellowships, and enjoyed real esteem as a teacher.

But Bob was under-recognized as a poet (though the phrase, of course, sounds redundant: after all, an immensely successful book of poems will sell fewer copies than, say, a mediocre pro baseball team will sell tickets to a given game). I suspect that his relatively small reputation had to do with his lifelong, deeply committed Christianity.

The consensual view of Ivy League liberals, whose influence on too much of our public dialogue strikes me as disproportionate, dismisses the religious perspective, often  rancorously, sometimes insultingly. My own Christianity is far more heterodox than Bob’s ever was, yet I have frequently had to bite my lip among northeastern “progressives” (many of whose values I share, in all honesty) while they lampoon my beliefs.

It turns out that for the self-styled enlightened ones, religious folk are the only remaining group in western culture toward whom it seems not merely okay but commendable to practice intolerance. Men and women who wouldn’t dream of slurring an ethnic community or those with an alternate sexual identity– indeed, people who would lambaste anyone who did so as a bigot– feel free to see all people of faith as one and the same... and as fair game for mockery and debasement.

In short, it appears that we needn’t reject blanket judgment on any given group of people; rather, we must be sure that we make that judgment on the right group of people. If we honor that principle, you see, we are not narrow-minded. We can say whatever we want about these undesirables.

We must despise orthodoxies...unless they are our own.

But don’t our own orthodoxies, as much as anyone else’s, close us off, say, from a poem as deft and challenging as “Pool by the Sheep Gate”?

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