Christopher Buckley. Varieties of Religious Experience. Stephen F. Austin UP 2013
A mad scrum
Here it is—the primeval moment of conception, the scientifically-plausible scrum of life becoming life, the act of creation central to Christopher Buckley’s 19th collection of poetry. One of our greatest contemporary metaphysical poets, Buckley launches a new investigation into science, religion, and philosophy vis-à-vis his Catholic upbringing and the existential quandaries produced by lost faith. Varieties of Religious Experience borrows its title from William James’ landmark study of natural theology which espouses the use of science for the analysis of religion, and it’s immediately clear that Buckley shares this purview for his own book.
In the opening lines of the first poem, “The Shape of Things,” Buckley presents his longing to reconcile the contingent materiality of physics with the shapeless contours of his own suspect system of belief: “I’ve been reading the science books again / before bed, where I am lost / in the search for the unified field.” This process of unification epitomizes Buckley’s intention in this collection. Although the shifting chiasmus of religion and science, art and theology, sand grains and star fields, have been explored throughout his poetic oeuvre, here they are the most intimate and articulate.
Buckley’s accounts of his education in a Catholic boarding school play no small role in his speaker’s sojourn for meaning, though his speaker admits that at age eleven he’d already “stopped believing we were going / to forfeit our place in heaven if we didn’t / blindly accept every bit of twisted dogma.” The prospect of the afterlife can no longer be understood via the religion he was force-fed as a child; therefore, the mature speaker of these poems must find whatever solace he can in tangibles. To this end, Buckley uses a range of access points—spindrift, succulents, science texts, Santa Barbara boulevards, the ghost of a beloved cat—to consider the dense, mute sea of the cosmos. Buckley marries the sacred with the mundane, mines personal artifacts for atoms, and atoms for heavenly bodies.
Buckley proves to be a master at sustaining lyric tension by weaving elegy with “burger-and-fries realism.” “Ontology by the Sea,” dedicated to the late Luis Omar Salinas, is a prime example of how the elegiac Buckley can bring verve and swagger into a poem that mourns. The first three lines leap into liveliness: “Aye! vato, pistolero of moonlight! / I know that’s you, / there, beside the contingent palms.” The direct address to the Chicano poet’s ghost is an apt setup to assess the nature of being. Buckley praises Salinas for taking “the bull / of madness by the horns / in corridas beneath / the cosmic sparkling abstractions.” The range of tonal qualities here shows Buckley at his best. In keeping with his project, he returns the poem’s ontological argument back to the search for his own variety of religion:
And I’m over half way out to sea—
what banner should I hoist now
so God might see either of us,
know that we remain serious
and will not repent
the thousand incidental anarc
hies of the heart
on this shore or that?
The dropped lines crest and break upon each other, mimicking the tidal movements of the ocean. This form also presents disjunctures between a faith the poet wants to have—one he cannot accept on the terms of guilt and repentance—and his own conviction “that we are here alone / on the earth, no matter / what we say.” Buckley creates these rifts between belief and faith in the poem while simultaneously holding them together, in concert, a steady ebb and flow.
“I’ve turned up a hundred / ways to express / my fear of death” seems to be the prevailing attitude of the book’s final, sobering section. In this last thrust Buckley grapples with an indifferent father, a dead mother, natural selection, retirement, the Mayans, Buddha, and even Dirty Harry’s aphorism on fate. “Getting There” is the most poised, succinct poem on the prospective hereafter. If Buckley has been winding along the forking thoroughfares of faith and science throughout the book, this then, is the existential lookout from which he gains a transcendent, fatalistic perspective: “It comes to little now / who I forgive, mourn, / or thank.” There is a sense of resignation, as if all this writing and unifying has come to nothing. A bleak, biblical tone also echoes within the poem: “The dust shifts / and we are barely / suspended in the light.” This is ancient dust, recycled dust from which we rise up in a flash and to which we return just as quickly. To end the poem, in a move reminiscent of both Larry Levis and Weldon Kees, Buckley shows us the body of the boy he once was, a boy who is waiting with his hair neatly parted and his brown shoes scuffed, at the last train station, to be taken home.
While there is acceptance of mortality here, there is also, perhaps, a final concession to uncertainty:
I can see nothing
beyond the smoke
and midnight haze
at the far end
of the platform,
where I am not
even sure of the stars.
Albert Einstein provides one of the epigraphs to this collection: “I am a deeply religious non-believer…This is a somewhat new kind of religion.” The words of the great physicist are commensurate with Buckley’s gratitude for each atomic breath. For the poet, attention must be paid to the questions left unanswered by a religion incomprehensible yet foundational in childhood. He does not abandon wholesale the trappings of faith, for a sense of reverence remains, spurs, enriches the task of his poetry. This predisposition toward praise creates honest poems of clarity and accessibility, poems of intention, and emotional payoff. After all, “If it’s going to mean something / it had better mean something.” The sum of this collection’s search, the end of the equation, the result of all these epistemological investigations and unifying theories, is the belief that such work matters, and that we should perform it with a devotion equal to the fervor of faith “so we do not / take anything even remotely / connected / to our lives / for granted.” Regardless of religion, I say amen to that.